To present herself and her letters of recommendation at the education office, Hortense wears her fancy wedding dress. Gilbert makes fun of her, but she quells him by saying this occasion is more momentous than her actual wedding. Still, he takes her to the office in Islington so she doesn’t have to navigate the buses by herself. When they arrive, she tells Gilbert to wait outside so he doesn’t embarrass her with his shabby clothes and noticeably Jamaican accent.
For Hortense, her professional career is completely separate from her marriage, and even a contrast to it—her professional hopes make up for her disappointment in romance. On one hand, she’s unappreciative of Gilbert, who’s trying his best to be kind. On the other hand, this shows her remarkable independence and her refusal to give up her individual identity to married life.
When Hortense enters the building and finally locates the correct office, the three secretaries stare at her without asking what she needs. Falteringly, Hortense explains that she’s a teacher and wants to present her qualifications. Smiling widely but speaking condescendingly, the head secretary rifles through her recommendations and asks where she trained to become a teacher. Dismissively, she tells Hortense that since she studied in Jamaica she’s not qualified to teach in England. She won’t even explain to Hortense how she can become qualified.
Hortense’s entire plan for her life in England hinged on securing a teaching job—so this rejection is one of the novel’s most crushing moments. Her ineligibility to teach emphasizes the fact that, even though she grew up considering herself a British citizen and aspiring to British ideals, the British don’t reciprocate this respect at all, and don’t see her as someone who can belong in their country.
Trying to maintain her dignity, Hortense announces that she’ll be back when she is qualified to teach; the women roll their eyes. Turning to leave gracefully, Hortense accidentally walks into the broom closet. All three women are giggling when she emerges and finds the right door.
Hortense’s mishap adds insult to injury—it’s especially damaging to Hortense, who’s very proud of her dignified demeanor. However, while she commits a gaffe, the secretaries display bad manners and maliciousness, making them even more undignified than she is.