I first came across Jackie Collins by a complete accident, when a stranger (to whom I am very much indebted) left “The World is Full of Married Men” on the table outside my hotel room in Mexico.
As a naïve 15 year-old who had only recently discovered feminism, Collins’ writing felt explosive. I devoured “Married Men”, immediately ordered as many of her other books as I could afford, and rapidly fell in love with her strong, exciting female characters.
Collins’ women were unlike any I’d ever read before. They were rich, sexy, empowered – women who weren’t embarrassed or inhibited by their sexuality, but instead revelled in it. Lucky Santangelo, the eponymous protagonist of the 9-book Santangelo series, wasn’t a manic pixie dream girl, or a sexually frustrated single mother-of-three; she was a fucking Mafia princess. She was exactly who I wanted to be.
When Collins’ first novel was published in 1968, “women’s fiction” tended to follow the pattern of painful interior monologues where women agonised over their lovers. Collins’ book, on the other hand, featured David Cooper: a man who leaves his wife for his mistress Claudia, who in turn sends him packing as she’s more interested in her showbiz career than in any man. It was considered so raunchy that it was immediately banned in Australia, and a British MP took out a half-page ad in The People which read: “This is the most shocking book I have ever read.” If portraying a world in which women were in control of – and what’s more, ENJOYED – their own sex lives isn’t the most feminist thing ever, then I honestly don’t know what is.
“First lust, then love,” Collins reminds us in “Married Lovers.” It’s certainly a pervading theme in all of her 32 books – there is a scene in “Chances” between a teenage sex slave and her client that I can honestly say taught me more about sex than anything I’d ever heard in PSHE. Women, I discovered, could have sex purely for enjoyment, without feeling like they owed anyone anything. Collins lit the touch-paper of female sexual fantasy in a way that has only recently been matched by E. L. James.
But it wasn’t only sexual liberation through which her novels taught me about feminism; her books also discussed issues such as Hollywood ageism, slut-shaming and consent way before they were making headlines. And Collins’ LGBT characters are also refreshingly three-dimensional: in the Santangelo series, Lucky’s brother Dario comes out as gay, prompting a very subtle but powerful critique from the narrator about conventional masculinity. In an interview with the Huffington Post in 2014, Collins noted that, “I’ve always written about the double standard that exists between men and women, and it really pisses me off.”
Collins continually overturned patriarchal notions of women’s fiction. Her “Studs” were powerless; her “Bitches” were inspirational. Her female characters were voracious, erotic, flawed. In her own words, “My heroines kick ass. They don’t get their asses kicked.” Collins, much like her female characters, was a determined, dynamic woman who dared to take chances – and they always triumphed in the end. That’s why I’m proud to call her one of my foremost feminist idols.
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