Miss Jennifer Honey was a mild and quiet person who never raised her voice and was seldom seen to smile, but there is no doubt she possessed that rare gift for being adored by every small child under her care. (7.3-4)
That's our narrator talking, and he has Miss Honey pegged. Like Matilda, she's special. Although she's not a genius, Miss Honey has a "rare gift"; she can make her students love her. They "adore" her, and their adoration makes them into even more willing learners. You know what that means, folks. Miss Honey is the perfect teacher.
Just how perfect a teacher is Miss Honey, exactly? Think about it: on the first day of class, only a couple of kids can spell "cat." By Thursday of the first week, even a slower student named Prudence can spell "difficulty" without any, well, difficulty. If Miss Honey can do that in a week, imagine how much she can help her students learn in a year's time. In other words, Miss Honey doesn't just help genius-level students. She tries to help everybody, and she does.
Once we meet Miss Honey, it becomes clear that Matilda's parents are, well, the worst parents ever. In contrast, Miss Honey is exactly the type of person who would be a perfect mom for Matilda. Even though she "[is] seldom seen to smile" (7.3-4), she has a lot of smiles for Matilda, and more importantly, she nurtures our favorite little genius. Miss Honey is kind, sweet, and gentle, and she understands kids.
Further descriptions of Miss Honey show how different she is from Matilda's actual mom, the blowsy Mrs. Wormwood (and from the giant monster, the Trunchbull): "Miss Honey […] could not have been more than twenty-three or twenty-four. She had a lovely pale oval Madonna face with blue eyes and her hair was light-brown" (7.3).
Oh well isn't that interesting? The narrator is comparing Miss Honey to Madonna (no, not that Madonna. We're talking about Jesus' mom here). We're thinking the Madonna was one awesome mama, and in comparing Miss Honey to her, the narrator is highlighting Miss Honey's role as a great maternal figure for her kiddos—Matilda in particular. She's obviously better than Mrs. Wormwood at this mothering business, and besides Mrs. Phelps, she seems like the only adult in this book who actually gives a hoot about youngsters.
In the end, when Miss Honey agrees to adopt Matilda, it only makes sense. In some ways, she's been mothering Matilda throughout the whole story, and doing a much better job of it than anyone else.
She may be delicate, but, as we read Matilda, we realize that Miss Honey is a determined person who's set on doing the right thing. Kind of like Matilda. In fact, maybe you could say that Miss Honey is like a grown-up version of Matilda. They both love poetry, limericks, and Dylan Thomas. As kids, their families did not understand them and treated them poorly. In Miss Honey's case, she even went through severe abuse at the hands of the Trunchbull.
The one key difference here is that Matilda and Miss Honey react to their abuse in very different ways. Let's hear it from Miss Honey herself:
"I don't want to talk about it," Miss Honey said. "It's too horrible. But in the end I became so frightened of her I used to start shaking when she came into the room. You must understand I was never a strong character like you. I was always shy and retiring." (17.43)
Sure, they both may have had horrible adult figures in their lives, but what happens afterward is very different. Miss Honey admits it: she wasn't as strong as Matilda is. She never would have stood up to the Trunchbull or played pranks on her tormentor. Luckily, Matilda can take care of business, and when she overthrows the Trunchbull, the student saves the teacher.
In conversations Matilda has with Miss Honey, it's the little girl who seems more like the adult, giving advice, evaluating the other's situation, and gently scolding her for giving in to the Trunchbull: "'You shouldn't have done that [sign your salary over to the Trunchbull],' Matilda said. 'Your salary was your chance of freedom'" (17.68). We get the sense that Matilda wouldn't have stood for the same treatment. But Miss Honey has gone through too much abuse. She's been broken.
Miss Honey was a victim of the evil Trunchbull—who we know isn't the most motherly of characters—for many years: "'I had been her slave nearly all my life and I hadn't the courage or the guts to say no. I was still petrified of her. She could still hurt me badly'" (17.69). With this kind of insight, perhaps it's unfair to say that Miss Honey is weaker than Matilda, or lacked the sass and determination that allows Matilda to stand up to mean old adults.
If Matilda had grown up with the Trunchbull, would she have been different? Maybe the Trunchbull's abuse was so extreme, so downright terrible, that just about anyone would have reacted in the way Miss Honey did.
We definitely don't want to imply that Miss Honey is weak. Deep down, Miss Honey still possesses courage and an independent mind. She's still willing to fight for what really matters, whether it's moving into a little shack (and getting out from under the Trunchbull's thumb) or voluntarily going to see the Trunchbull in order to help Matilda out. She's a victim of abuse, sure, but with Matilda's help, she is able to create the life she always wanted. She just might have more strength than we give her credit for.