Reverberations between the title of this book and the title of another - The Story of O - are inescapable, so The Story of V excites a tantalising curiosity before a page is turned. The Story of O is one of the most famous erotic novels. Graham Greene described it as "a rare thing, a pornographic book well written without a trace of obscenity". Harold Pinter is a fan and Brian Aldiss believed the author, Pauline Réage, raised pornography to an art form.
With a title such as The Story of V , this book has set itself a lot to live up to. And does it? You don't have to look far for a taster.
These fascinating female facts are set out on the jacket: "The vulva is the most common image in prehistoric art... Female foetuses in utero masturbate to orgasm... Female orgasm evolved from the need to control and coordinate the movement of ova and sperm within female genitalia."
The topic of female genitalia could be hamstrung by its language; all titillation is removed by the nature of its ugly descriptors: Greene might have given it the sobriquet - "A sexy book without a trace of sex."
Nomenclature is a problem. No matter how luscious, how juicily enveloping (like the scabbard of a sword, as the 16th-century anatomist Columbo described it), how sweetly perfumed (six different delicious odours according to the Kama Sutra ), the name of this delightful recess remains the uncompromisingly clinical Latin "vagina". There is no darling, sexy diminutive for it and that goes for the entire sexual anatomy of women. And words define the scope of any discussion. Mind you, there seems to be some confusion, at least to a pedant such as myself, as to what parts of the female pudenda (see what I mean) can be included in the term vagina.
For the first 50 or so pages, which cover the vagina in prehistoric art as a fertility symbol, the vagina as a mystical power to ward off evil spirits, as a catalyst to dispel a sombre mood in ancient Egypt and, in the Shinto tradition, as a bringer of light, I had difficulty matching the descriptions of the vagina to the anatomical reality, given that the vagina is a deeply buried internal space that reveals itself only to persistent exploration. In her diaries, Anne Frank famously describes her efforts to find her own hidden channel: "You can barely find it, because the folds of skin hide the opening. The hole's so small I can hardly imagine how a man could get in there much less how a baby could come out."
The celebration of the divine triangle, that arrowhead pointing downwards showing the way to the origin of all life, be it in Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism, outlined the female vulva (another awful Latin word) not the vagina. For a while I had considerable difficulty with the word vagina as a portmanteau term that included everything from the mons veneris, the labia - major and minor -the introitus (oh, heck), the clitoris and eventually the vagina. Especially as the author expresses the hope that we won't ever look at the vagina in quite the same way again - when it is possible to get a decent view of it only through a speculum, a gynaecological instrument not always to hand.
As I said, pedantry. Once over that, I found the most fascinating chapters of the book encapsulate the embryonic emergence of girls and boys.
Catherine Blackledge's descriptions and the accompanying drawings are about the clearest I have come across and leave one in no doubt that we are basically a female race and that both men and women share every facet of sexual anatomy, though differently sculpted by the personalised cocktail of hormones a foetus is exposed to in utero . And, yes, men do have a clitoris, though vestigial.
The author hits her stride with some glorious metaphors: the vagina as waste disposal unit, sperm bodyguard and sperm bouncer. She loves her subject, and with her robust, racy style it is easy to relish it too, particularly when she gets down to the nitty-gritty - the sexuality of the vagina and adnexa (I give up). En route to a better understanding of a woman's pleasure organs we pass many interesting exhibits: the female hyena with a clitoris so big it puts the male hyena's penis to shame; and the female bonobos who regularly indulge in genito-genital rubbing while gazing into each other's eyes.
Foreplay has always been in fashion. The need to prepare a female's genitalia in advance of successful coitus is not confined to human beings.
Animals are keen on it too. Typically, the male stimulates the female externally before she is ready to receive him internally. Singing, tapping, thrusting, rubbing, vibrating, licking - males call on many manoeuvres to persuade females to desire sexual communion and have the best shot at making sex an evolutionary success. Male insects as tiny as ticks and mites can spend hours orally stimulating the female to gain entry. Female rabbits require up to 70 rhythmic external thrusts from the buck before allowing him inside. Male primates use their fingers, mouths and whatever else comes to hand during foreplay. Is it any wonder today's women pine for pre-penetration arousal? It is part of their sexual evolutionary inheritance.
"Opening Pandora's box" is the subtitle of this book, but it is more of a treasure trove for understanding the value of women's sexuality and the right to feel pride and pleasure in their "miracle of creation", their V.
Miriam Stoppard, FRCP, is a writer and broadcaster.
The Story of V: Opening Pandora's Box
Author - Catherine Blackledge
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Pages - 322
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 0 297 60706 5