What image comes to mind when ‘Lolita’ is mentioned? A knock-kneed schoolgirl, all innocence and trust, a puppet under the thrall of pedophile? A calculating ingénue who knows more than she lets on, as envisioned by Stanley Kubrick in his 1962 film? The brilliant, if unsettling, creation of one of the great masters of American writing? Sarah Weinman introduces another image of Lolita that she wants readers to think of: eleven-year-old Sally Horner, of Camden, New Jersey. In The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World, Weinman makes an intriguing argument that Vladimir Nabokov was influenced by Horner’s case while writing Lolita. But more than simply putting a face to the name, Weinman makes a larger case for reevaluating the power dynamics at play in the novel, a point that is all the more timely in this #MeToo era.
The Real Lolita pivots around two figures: Sally Horner and Vladimir Nabokov. In 1948, at the age of eleven, Sally Horner was enticed by a middle aged man who was posing as an FBI agent into accompanying him to nearby Atlantic City under the ruse of a vacation. Over the next twenty-one months, the two traveled across country posing as father and daughter in public, while Sally was subjected to sexual abuse from her ‘father’ the entire time. Her rescue made headlines, as much for the puzzling fact that Sally had opportunities to escape her situation over the course of her ordeal, and yet didn’t. Her story is a truly tragic one, as her new-found freedom only lasted a few years. Nabokov, of course, has been widely studied, but his legacy was fiercely protected by wife Véra even as he was still active and more so after his death as to help him take on nearly mythical status. Weinman has to work hard to show that Nabokov knew of Horner, much less that he based his best-known creation on her, and it’s easy to imagine some readers may not be convinced that Horner had the impact on Nabokov Weinman claims. The trouble that Weinman runs into with her main argument is simply the lack of information. Horner, as she notes, left little information outside of the news accounts and court documents related to her case, leaving Weinman to rely on conjecture and comparisons with other crimes of the era for parallels. Nabokov, Weinman contends, was such a follower of crime journalism and works referencing his own novels that the lack of Horner material in his archives is in itself a red flag. The rest of her argument relies on Nabokov’s writing habits and earlier treatments of Lolita-ish material—not exactly concrete evidence that Horner was an inspiration.
Why The Real Lolita is a worthwhile read really doesn’t have anything to do with influence, but on the girls at the center of the story. As the hype around Lolita grew, Véra privately lamented how the public seemed to forget the little girl at the center of the story, ‘the child’s helplessness, her pathetic dependence upon the monstrous [Humbert Humbert], and her heartrending courage all along.’ Sally Horner lived that same life, but never had the opportunity to reclaim her story. Reading The Real Lolita might be hard since there’s no chance of a happy ending, but Weinman finally gives Sally Horner—and the other Lolitas lost to history—a chance to tell her story.