Doris Lessing's short story "Mrs. Fortescue" revolves around the sexual awakening of a young man and the emotional displacement he feels as the result of his older sister outpacing him on the journey to adulthood.
The protagonist of the story is the aforementioned boy, Fred Danderlea, who is sixteen years old and described quite simply as a "loutish schoolboy." Most of our understanding of Fred comes from his commentary on and perspective of the characters which surround him. As we will soon discover, he is desperate to understand his sexuality and manhood and to contextualize the knowledge of these parts of himself against the behaviors and appearances of others...
Fred's sister, Jane Danderlea, is seventeen years old and no longer in school. A pretty girl who is wholly concerned with her own pursuits and newly discovered adulthood, Jane is "far from being [Fred's] friend and ally," and in fact seems "positively to hate him." Jane serves as a proxy for Fred's sexual urges, and he watches her rather lasciviously, even taking the time to spy on her as she dresses: "She slipped over her still puppy-fatted white shoulders a new dressing-gown in cherry-red and buttoned it up primly..." She is irritated by her brother's presence and speaks to him in "this new, jaunty voice... she used as a weapon against all men."
In our first description of Fred's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Danderlea, we learn that Fred "disliked [them], because they told lies." The couple manages a liquor shop (which they also live above) for Sanko and Duke; on the whole, they don't seem to be particularly remarkable, aside from the fact that Fred believes that "they pretended not to know what he meant" when he tries to inform them of his sexual urges. Mr. Danderlea is described as having a "dome of a stomach," most likely from his voracious appetite. Mrs. Danderlea seems irritated by her husband's lack of table manners, when she passive-aggressively asks him, "What's wrong with the spoon?" after he sloppily tries to eat his dinner with a hunk of fried bread. We later learn that Mr. Danderlea has been unfaithful to his wife and visits Mrs. Fortescue for sexual services.
Mrs. Fortescue is the older woman who is employed as a prostitute and lives in the room above the Danderlea family. She dresses extravagantly, often leaving the house wearing furs and "a small hat... with a veil that was drawn tight over her face and held with a bunch of flowers." She is described as having "dark, made-up eyes" and a "small old reddened mouth." Fred ends up losing his virginity to her, but regards her with a certain aggravated disgust:
"This old, rather kind face... was like a mask held between the cherry-red gown over a body whose shape was slim and young, and the hair, beautifully tinted a tactful silvery-blond and waving softly into the hollows of an ancient neck."
Fred's final remarks on her appearance, delivered directly to Mrs. Fortescue after he has sex with her, also seem to come from a rather hyper-masculine, self-aggrandizing perspective: "Look at yourself, look at yourself then... Filthy old whore, disgusting, that's what you are disgusting!" That such a statement would come out of a young man's mouth is perhaps the best textual characterization of Fred.