Miss Honey invites Matilda to eat the second slice of bread. As Matilda nibbles, she asks if Miss Honey is badly paid and if the other teachers live like this. Stiffly, Miss Honey says she’s the exception. Matilda says Miss Honey must just want to live simply—it must save her from having to dust and buy “junky” food like ice cream and eggs. Miss Honey’s face looks tight and strange as she sits in silence. Matilda apologizes for her forwardness, but Miss Honey notes that Matilda is too bright to not be curious. She admits that Matilda is the first visitor to the cottage, and she notes that Matilda may look like a child but, really, Matilda is an adult inside.
Keep in mind that the Wormwoods are fairly wealthy, at least compared to Miss Honey. Matilda is well aware that Miss Honey’s lifestyle isn’t the norm. Asking if Miss Honey wants to “live simply” is a way to let Miss Honey save face; if Miss Honey chose, she could agree and move on to another subject. But instead, Miss Honey is drawn in by Matilda’s curiosity. To Miss Honey, it’s normal for a child like Matilda to wonder about this sort of thing, and Matilda’s intelligence makes her notice things that other kids don’t.
Miss Honey says she hasn’t been able to speak to anyone about her problems, but Matilda seems magical, and she’d love to tell Matilda her story. Matilda accepts more tea, and then Miss Honey begins her story. She says she’s only 23. Her father was a doctor and they lived in a nice big, brick house. Then, her mother died when she was two, so her father invited his unmarried sister-in-law to look after Miss Honey. Miss Honey says she hated her aunt instantly, since she wasn’t kind. Her father never knew, since the aunt was nice when he was around. Then came the second tragedy: Miss Honey’s father died when she was five. Her aunt continued to care for her—and took ownership of the house.
As Miss Honey tells her story, it becomes clear that, like Matilda, Miss Honey didn’t grow up in happy circumstances. Once her father died, Miss Honey didn’t have any adults to protect, nurture, or advocate for her, since her aunt was so terrible to her. Miss Honey also shows that her aunt had ulterior motives for caring for her niece: getting control of the Honeys’ house, which is no doubt a valuable bit of real estate. So the aunt shows a desire for power, both in terms of finances and having control of other people.
Matilda asks how Miss Honey’s father died. Miss Honey says it’s all very mysterious; her father didn’t seem like the sort to commit suicide, but that’s what everything looked like. Matilda suggests the aunt did it, but Miss Honey says you can’t think those things without proof. Then, after a moment, Miss Honey says her aunt turned into a “holy terror.” She won’t even say what happened; it’s too terrible. Miss Honey says she always shook whenever her aunt was around. She didn’t have other family to care for her. Over the years, she became so terrified of her aunt that she did whatever her aunt said. She lived in the house like a “slave,” doing all the housework. Miss Honey implies she was beaten as well.
Miss Honey may accuse Matilda of jumping to conclusions about her aunt killing her father, but it doesn’t seem like it’d be a stretch given how Miss Honey describes her aunt. The fact that Matilda jumps to this conclusion at all is a sign of Matilda’s keen sense of justice. And in describing life with her aunt, Miss Honey describes another alternative to neglect: outright abuse. Miss Honey was terrified into obedience and, unlike Matilda, wasn’t able to simply work around her caregivers to get the things she wanted (as Matilda did by going to the library, for instance).
Miss Honey says that, though she was bright, she couldn’t go to university because her aunt needed her to do housework at home. So she took the bus to Reading for a teacher training course starting when she was 18. She couldn’t leave her aunt until she had a job—and anyway, she was too afraid of her aunt to walk away.
Here, Miss Honey also draws similarities between herself and Matilda when she notes that she was a bright child. She might not have been a child genius like Matilda, but she did have a desire to learn and better herself through education.
Miss Honey insists the story is over, but Matilda asks how she managed to escape. Miss Honey said that when she got her teaching job, her aunt insisted on taking all of Miss Honey’s earnings except for a pound per week to pay her back. Now, Miss Honey’s paycheck goes straight to her aunt. Matilda notes that Miss Honey’s salary could’ve been her freedom, but Miss Honey says she was too afraid to fight back.
Matilda recognizes instantly that in order to free herself from her aunt, Miss Honey needs control of her own paycheck. With money, Miss Honey can make choices for herself. But without that money, Miss Honey remains under her aunt’s thumb and can’t be totally free, or a fully independent adult.
Two years ago, Miss Honey came across this tiny cottage while on a walk. She asked the farmer if she could rent it and he agreed to let her have it for 10 pence per week. Miss Honey paid for a month in advance. That night, she packed her things, told her aunt she was leaving, and walked out. Matilda praises Miss Honey. Miss Honey says with the money left over after rent, she has enough to buy paraffin for her lamp and some basic food staples. To Matilda, Miss Honey seems like the bravest person ever. But when Miss Honey says she doesn’t have a bed, Matilda realizes her teacher needs help.
Miss Honey is brave—she did something terrifying in defying her aunt and moving out into this cottage. Moving out gave Miss Honey some degree of independence, though her aunt still constrains her ability to live well by keeping control of Miss Honey’s paycheck. Realizing that Miss Honey doesn’t have a bed, though, shifts something for Matilda. Miss Honey may have physically escaped her aunt, but she has to escape financially in order to be truly secure and safe.
Matilda suggests that Miss Honey quit teaching and collect unemployment, but Miss Honey says she loves teaching too much. Then, Matilda asks what happened to Miss Honey’s aunt. She’s still living in the family house, and she’s nowhere close to dying.
Matilda seems mature beyond her years when she suggests collecting unemployment. For Miss Honey, though, this isn’t an option: it’s more important to her to make a positive impact on kids’ lives as a teacher than it is to quit so she can have the means to escape her aunt.
Matilda asks if Miss Honey’s father really intended for the aunt to own the house. Miss Honey says he no doubt intended for her to have it for a time, but usually houses are left for children when they’re old enough. But Miss Honey says her father’s will was likely destroyed—and her aunt was able to produce a note from Miss Honey’s father, supposedly leaving the house to her and not Miss Honey. Miss Honey insists she doesn’t have the money to fight her aunt, especially since her aunt is so respected in the community. After a moment, Miss Honey reveals that her aunt is Miss Trunchbull.
Everything makes sense once Miss Honey shares that Miss Trunchbull is her aunt. Miss Trunchbull is terrifying and intimidating—it’s no wonder Miss Honey is so quiet and nervous. Learning that Miss Trunchbull resides in the Honeys’ house and is taking Miss Honey’s paycheck shows Matilda that Miss Trunchbull got her financial power through theft. And she keeps that power by earning respect in the community, so that nobody is brave enough to actually shut her terrible behavior down.