Pussy galore

The story of V: opening Pandora's box

Dr Catherine Blackledge <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 336pp, £1

You can't help but warm to Dr Catherine Blackledge. In the midst of her fact-packed first book, The Story of V, you get irresis- tible glimpses of the sensual progress of Catherine Blackledge, the woman. She confesses on page one that she sometimes used to blush if she said the word "vagina". On page 200, she records that she's been "fortunate enough to see a fellow female ejaculate". By page 226, she says that her two favourite smells are "the savoury aroma of my mum's cooked meat and the heady rich scent of my fertile c***". And by page 265, we know we're dealing with an orgasm-a-day woman.

Blackledge details - and boy does she detail - how the vagina has been shown through history, religion, art, literature, science, medicine, anthropology, mythology and folklore. Just for good measure, there are full and frank colour photographs, medical diagrams, charts, tables, etchings and a photograph of two zebras on the job.

I love writers who are passionate about their subject. And on the subject of vaginas (human, bird, animal, fish or insect), and everything related to them, you'd be hard pushed to find anyone more enthusiastic than Blackledge. But before I praise her (and bury her editors), I have some gripes with the title. Who or what is "V", for heaven's sake? What's wrong with the word vagina? It didn't deter theatregoers rushing to see The Vagina Monologues. Why "Pandora's box"? Blackledge acknowledges that according to Greek mythology, Pandora was "to blame for the ills that beset men". Not a worthy subtitle of what is, in many ways, a feminist book. A glance at the come-on title and cover illustration and you'd think it was a book about an Edwardian prostitute.

So some book browsers may feel let down when they open this book at random and read that the spotted hyena, because of her slanted genitalia, is able to walk away from "unsatisfactory sex". (OK, that wasn't a let down: many women I know would pay good money to have their genitalia so smartly slanted.) They may tire of wading through information on the mating habits of the fruit fly. I admit it's a comfort to know that female chimpanzees stimulate their clitoris by straddling a stick. But, like me, you may nod off when Dr Blackledge describes the protecting properties of female genital mucus.

Yet she provides marvellous anecdotes of women lifting their skirts to calm angry seas, to scare away an advancing enemy and to make crops grow in ancient Egypt. She tells us that cats are forever associated with female genitalia and all things female. The word "pusse" (precursor to today's "pussy") first surfaced in 1662. She informs us that performances of tokudashi (revealing the vagina) are given every night in the red-light district of Tokyo and Kyoto, and audiences supplied with torches by the performer before she displays herself. We read that doctors in the 1880s used to stimulate their "hysterical" female patients to orgasm - to calm them.

The author is inspirational about the effect of "contractile vaginal talents". Wallis Simpson, it was said, perfected "the Shanghai squeeze" and cost Britain a king in 1936. She had, apparently, "the ability to make a matchstick feel like a Havana cigar". I simply can't stop doing my pelvic floor exercises!

She's thought-provoking on the differences between the east, which has historically revered the vagina as an icon to be worshipped and honoured, and the west, where it was seen as the gateway to hell, men's potential downfall, something to be feared, ridiculed and loathed. This 322-page book probably does contain everything I ever needed or wanted to know about the vagina - and a lot more besides.

But all writers need good editors, and it is a great shame that this book does not seem to have had one. The repetition drives you nuts. Each time you think: "Haven't I read that before?", you're absolutely right - you have. I was tetchy the second time I read about the bonobo's amazing clitoris, and bored with the oft-repeated "cunning stunts" spoonerism. The third time I read that male rabbits perform up to 70 rhythmic thrusts to get a result, I said "fuck".

The index charts all this repetition, so any fool could have checked. A jarring number of sentences begin with the same adverbs: she even manages "mind-bogglingly" and "eye-wateringly" - but only once to describe giving birth.

So here's what could have been a splendid book spoiled by the worst editing job I've seen in years. Find yourself a new publisher Dr Blackledge - you're worth it.

Marcelle d'Argy Smith is a former editor of Cosmopolitan