Thank goodness Matilda meets Mrs. Phelps at the library! Finally, a sane adult who doesn't treat Matilda as though she's a total nuisance. Unlike the other grown-ups in Matilda's life, Mrs. Phelps addresses Matilda with kindness and sympathy. She doesn't mock Matilda or seem rudely skeptical when the girl says she's read all the books in the kids' section—even though Mrs. Phelps thinks that's impossible.
Instead, she lets Matilda be while she gathers information. Rather than trying to scare Matilda off or dismissing her out of hand, Mrs. Phelps figures out the best way to support this young reader. Check out this dialogue between them, when Matilda asks Mrs. Phelps for something to read:
Mrs Phelps was stunned. "Exactly how old are you, Matilda?" she asked.
"Four years and three months," Matilda said.
Mrs Phelps was more stunned than ever, but she had the sense not to show it. "What sort of a book would you like to read next?" she asked.
Matilda said, "I would like a really good one that grown-ups read. A famous one. I don't know any names." (1.25-28)
Even though she's stunned, she has the sense not to show Matilda how blown away she is. If she did reveal her stunned-ness, she'd be clueing Matilda in to the fact that the little girl is really, really advanced for her age.
And that might be a scary thing for Matilda to hear. It's one thing to be "extra-ordinary" (1.7). It's another thing to be shown that you're really different from everybody else—that you're not normal. Usually it's exciting for librarians to meet young people who enjoy reading. But they hardly ever meet readers who are so advanced at such a young age.
Mrs. Phelps puts together a thoughtful reading list for Matilda, complete with Dickens and Hemingway and Kipling (we're betting Dahl was a fan of those three). And to top it all off, she gives Matilda important advice about reading, too:
"A fine writer will always make you feel that [that you're witnessing the events of the book as they happen]," Mrs Phelps said. "And don't worry about the bits you can't understand. Sit back and allow the words to wash around you, like music." (1.49)
It's impossible for a young reader, no matter how intelligent, to understand absolutely everything about books written in more complicated language for adults. There are some words Matilda just can't know, unless she memorized the dictionary (which we wouldn't put past her). Mrs. Phelps gives Matilda the tools to go through the books and understand them as best she can, which is what really counts.
Although Mrs. Phelps helps Matilda a great deal in the library, she doesn't help her as much out of it. The small tidbits Matilda shares about her home life are worrisome to Mrs. Phelps, but the librarian doesn't really do anything about it. When Matilda explains that she walks to the library by herself, for example, "Mrs. Phelps [becomes] concerned about the child's safety on the walk through the fairly busy village High Street and the crossing of the road, but she decide[s] not to interfere" (1.42).
The fact that Mrs. Phelps stays out of it makes her an important, but minor character in Matilda's life. Mrs. Phelps isn't ignoring Matilda, she just sees what the girl's up to and doesn't stop her. She even helps Matilda grow as a reader and nurtures her interest in books, and that's one of the things that help make Matilda strong. So in an indirect way, Mrs. Phelps is an awesome influence, giving Matilda the tools she needs to fight for herself.
Later on, the narrator describes this hands-off approach as a good thing, especially when it comes to Matilda's intelligence: "it was probably a good thing that she [Mrs. Phelps] did not allow herself to be completely carried away by it all. […] She was someone who minded her own business and had long since discovered it was seldom worth while to interfere with other people's children" (1.47). By minding her own business, Mrs. Phelps help Matilda to mind hers.
Mrs. Phelps plays a very particular role in Matilda's young life. She's not meddlesome or nosy, and she certainly doesn't try to save the little girl from less than ideal home conditions. But she does act as a literal keeper of books and opens up this whole new world of literature and learning to Matilda. We wish all kids had a Mrs. Phelps in their lives.