Doris Lessing (1919-2013) once called her sequence of novels Children of Violence “a study of the individual conscience in its relation with the collective” (quoted in Whittaker, 37). More often than not, it is female figures that she depicts in closely observed detail, showing women’s struggles to gain personal and sexual freedom. However, in the short narrative “Mrs. Fortescue,” first published in Winter’s Tales in 1964, the protagonist is an adolescent male, a 16-year-old boy passing from childhood innocence to a sexually driven awakening, a “new state of mind” (507) that plunges him into uncertainty.
Fred Danderlea is the loutish schoolboy son of parents who run a liquor shop in London, on the floor above which the family—parents, son and 17-year-old daughter—lives in cramped and squalid quarters that are never free from the pervasive odor of whiskey and stale beer wafting up from below. As is so often true in Lessing’s work, the topographical layout embodies the family constellation: The children have to pass through the parents’ bedroom to get to their own room, a single room shared during their childhood and only recently divided into two by a makeshift partition, which gives “at least the illusion of privacy” (508). Whereas Fred is still subject to the disciplined round of school, his sister Jane has left school and dolls up every evening for a night on the town; she is transformed by her newfound independence, being no longer the childhood companion of innocent summer holidays, but now a “cool, flip girl” (510) who despises her younger brother. On the upper floor lives Mrs. Fortescue, no longer young, who departs the house every evening attired in a fur coat and heavily made up—an “old tart” going about her business, as Fred is informed by a friend. His curiosity aroused, Fred follows her, confirming his suspicions that she is a prostitute, and is then enlightened by his parents, whose matter-of-fact account of their lodger’s doings fills him with a sense of shame and degradation at his parents’ deception of him. They have for years concealed this “horror, years-old, and right over their heads, part of their lives” (513). Nonetheless, he is drawn inexorably into this mixture of fascination and horror, and one evening, after providing himself with a half-full bottle of whiskey from his father’s supplies, he waits for Mrs. Fortescue to return home, lures the already somewhat intoxicated woman into her quarters, and after plying her further with whiskey pulls off her clothes and in a violent sexual union achieves “the goal of his hot imaginings of these ugly autumn nights in one shattering spasm” (519) that nevertheless fills him with “no less hatred.” After this act of violence, he humiliates her even more by turning the light on, so he can see her old, ugly body, and calling her a “filthy old whore” (520). Mrs. Fortescue’s parting comment, “That wasn’t very nice, was it?” (520), applies to both parties and, though understated, returns them to the quasi adult-child relationship that existed before.
That same day, after following his sister into town and observing her staring at an advertisement of a man wearing a revolver in his belt and then an assortment of lipsticks “in all the pink-orange-scarlet-crimson shades” (514), he places on her bed an old inoperative revolver of his father’s, together with an array of lipsticks instead of bullets. After his “victory” over Mrs. Fortescue he confronts his sister, and in a gesture of scarcely restrained violence he points the gun at “that woman his sister in her terrifying intimacy of warm pink” (521). The “pink pink pink everywhere” takes him back to Mrs. Fortescue’s room. Both women wear similar pink gowns, and the “fleshly” colors pink and red serve as a leitmotif for Fred’s (incestuous) sexual desire. Through his aggression the boy has changed and triumphed: He thinks he has “regained his sister” and “come level with her again” (521). Freudian critics would argue that fragmentation of his adolescent identity, symbolized by the room plan, is overcome, as the divided compartments of his mind—ego, superego, and id—are reunited through his violent sexual initiation. Fred’s postlapsarian identity and sexual awakening is on the one hand a liberating experience that gives him a feeling of superiority over his sister and parents; on the other hand, “this ferment of his craziness” (514) does leads not into new maturity but into a crude form of violent masculinity. The story is a kind of Bildungsroman (story of development) that demonstrates the hollowness of its achieved goal.
Lessing, Doris L. Stories. New York: Vintage Books, 1980.
Whittaker, Ruth, Doris Lessing. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1988.