Study Guide

Mrs. Fortescue

by Doris Lessing

Mrs. Fortescue Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Mrs. Fortescue” is the story of a boy’s sexual initiation. Fred Danderlea, at sixteen, is beginning to feel uncomfortable about his own emerging sexuality. Up until this autumn, he has had an easy, friendly relationship with his sister. Now she seems to hate him and treat him like a child from her superior position as a young woman no longer in school, free to go out in the evenings. Aided by the flimsy partition his parents have used to divide their room, he tempers his erotic dreams with visions of a lovely, tender maiden, his sister’s alter ego, who redeems him from his shame. One night, tormented by libidinous inner battles, he sneaks out of the house and accidentally discovers that the ugly old woman who lives upstairs is a prostitute. He is filled with fear that his friends must know, and anger at his parents for tolerating her presence above them. When he confronts his parents with his new knowledge, they fail to react as he expects and proceed to discuss Mrs. Fortescue, her working conditions, and her relationship with her visitors as if there were nothing the slightest bit unusual about her occupation. Such “casual back and forth chat about this horror” turns him scarlet; he gobbles down his meal and returns to his room listening to the sounds above with “an ashamed, fixed grin on his face.”

The next evening he follows Mrs. Fortescue and then his sister, spying on both their activities. After he observes Jane admiring an advertisement for lipsticks made to look like bullets, he returns home, fetches a revolver his parents have hidden in their...

(The entire section is 645 words.)