The Autistic PM

No, I am not talking about Mr Cameron or Mrs May or Mr Trudeau, nor am I talking about Gladstone or Churchill. I am not very fond of the game of armchair diagnosis of historical figures or living famous people. You will only ever get a glimpse of these people so you have no proper basis for your assumptions, and anyway, I don’t think there is much to be gained from it.

However, I have no such scruples when it comes to fictional characters. Therefore, dear readers, I give you: Plantagenet Palliser, Duke of Omnium, titular hero of Anthony Trollope’s 1876 novel “The Prime Minister” and hidden Aspie.

Below I have ranged my evidence, in the form of excerpts from the book, with some of the particular pertinent sentences in bold.

The Duke of Omnium never had any ambitions to be Prime Minister. He wanted to be Chancellor of the Exchequer (i.e. in charge of government finances), and he achieved that (in another novel by Trollope). However, the situation in this novel is such that after an election no one party has a majority in parliament. They have to form an uneasy coalition, and the Duke of Omnium becomes Prime Minster because he is the one person both parties can agree on.

The outstanding characteristic of the Duke is that he is scrupulously honest, eager to knuckle down to some serious work and unable to play political games. In fact, quite an unlikely candidate for the job. Indeed, he doubts his capabilities from the start, and gets more doubtful as time goes on, which causes him much anxiety over the course of the book. The thing is, as Chancellor, you manage money. As Prime Minister, you have to manage people, and that he finds very difficult:

He did doubt his ability to fill that place which it would now be his duty to occupy. He more than doubted. He told himself again and again that there was wanting to him a certain noble capacity for commanding support and homage from other men. With things and facts he could deal, but human beings had not opened themselves to him.

His social awkwardness is apparent in many situations. Here he is at a party at his own castle:

There he is. Do you see him in the corner with his brother duke? He doesn’t look as if he were happy; does he? No one would think he was the master of everything here. He has got himself hidden almost behind the screen. I’m sure he doesn’t like it.

And his wife deplores his lack of networking skills:

“Did you ever see anything so hopeless as he is?” said the Duchess.

“Who is hopeless?”

“Heavens and earth! Plantagenet;—who else? Is there another man in the world would come into his own house, among his own guests, and speak only to one person? […] Of course I know why he chooses that old man out of all the crowd. I don’t suppose he does it from any stupid pride of rank. I know very well what set of ideas govern him. But that isn’t the point. He has to reflect what others think of it, and to endeavour to do what will please them. There was I telling tarradiddles by the yard to that old oaf, Sir Orlando Drought, when a confidential word from Plantagenet would have had ten times more effect. And why can’t he speak a word to the people’s wives? They wouldn’t bite him. He has got to say a few words to you sometimes,—to whom it doesn’t signify, my dear—”

“I don’t know about that.”

“But he never speaks to another woman. He was here this evening for exactly forty minutes, and he didn’t open his lips to a female creature. I watched him. How on earth am I to pull him through if he goes on in that way?

Another time, his wife contrasts his way with the way a Prime Minister should behave in her opinion:

“They should have made me Prime Minister, and have let him be Chancellor of the Exchequer. I begin to see the ways of Government now. I could have done all the dirty work. I could have given away garters and ribbons, and made my bargains while giving them. I could select sleek, easy bishops who wouldn’t be troublesome. I could give pensions or withhold them, and make the stupid men peers. I could have the big noblemen at my feet, praying to be Lieutenants of Counties. I could dole out secretaryships and lordships, and never a one without getting something in return. I could brazen out a job and let the ‘People’s Banners’ and the Slides make their worst of it. And I think I could make myself popular with my party, and do the high-flowing patriotic talk for the benefit of the Provinces. A man at a regular office has to work. That’s what Plantagenet is fit for. He wants always to be doing something that shall be really useful, and a man has to toil at that and really to know things. But a Prime Minister should never go beyond generalities about commerce, agriculture, peace, and general philanthropy. Of course he should have the gift of the gab, and that Plantagenet hasn’t got. He never wants to say anything unless he has got something to say. 

But that’s the thing; the Duke does not talk to people in order to get something out of them or to manipulate them. He is entirely straightforward, and he likes others to be straightforward as well. He doesn’t do well with ulterior motives and hidden agendas. This is why he likes talking to his friend Lady Rosina, even if she is not the most interesting of persons (People are not dull to me, he says, if they are real):

“Who, in the name of all that’s wonderful, was that I saw you with in the garden?” the Duchess said to her husband one afternoon.

“It was Lady Rosina De Courcy, I suppose.”

“Heaven and earth!—what a companion for you to choose.”

“Why not?—why shouldn’t I talk to Lady Rosina De Courcy?”

“I’m not jealous a bit, if you mean that. I don’t think Lady Rosina will steal your heart from me. But why you should pick her out of all the people here, when there are so many would think their fortunes made if you would only take a turn with them, I cannot imagine.”

“But I don’t want to make any one’s fortune,” said the Duke; “and certainly not in that way.”

[…]

I wish you could give your time a little to some of the other people.”

“To go and shoot arrows?”

“No;—I don’t want you to shoot arrows. You might act the part of host without shooting. Can’t you walk about with anybody except Lady Rosina De Courcy?”

“I was walking about with Sir Orlando Drought last Sunday, and I very much prefer Lady Rosina.”

His wife still can’t quite grasp why he likes to talk to Lady Rosina so much:

“Now, Plantagenet,” she said, “do tell me one thing. What does she talk about?”

“The troubles of her family generally, I think.”

“That can’t last for ever.”

“She wears cork soles to her boots and she thinks a good deal about them.”

“And you listen to her?”

“Why not? I can talk about cork soles as well as anything else. Anything that may do material good to the world at large, or even to yourself privately, is a fit subject for conversation to rational people.”

“I suppose I never was one of them.”

“But I can talk upon anything,” continued the Duke, “as long as the talker talks in good faith and does not say things that should not be said, or deal with matters that are offensive. I could talk for an hour about bankers’ accounts, but I should not expect a stranger to ask me the state of my own. She has almost persuaded me to send to Mr. Sprout of Silverbridge and get some cork soles myself.”

This is what the Duke thinks:

Lady Rosina went in, and the Duke turned back, thinking of his friend and perhaps thinking of the cork soles of which she had to be so careful and which were so important to her comfort. It could not be that he fancied Lady Rosina to be clever, nor can we imagine that her conversation satisfied any of those wants to which he and all of us are subject. But nevertheless he liked Lady Rosina, and was never bored by her. She was natural, and she wanted nothing from him. When she talked about cork soles she meant cork soles.

And just what had happened with Sir Orlando that he should be so unfavourably compared to Lady Rosina? It is of course that he has not been straightforward, that he puts forward one thing but really means another. The disagreement had been about commissioning new ships for the navy, something the Duke was against and Sir Orlando in favour of. But the Duke suspects that Sir Orlando did not act because of his conviction that more ships are needed. He suspects him of hiding other motives, and that is what’s so distasteful to him:

“It is not the opposition he hates, but the cause in the man’s mind which may produce it. When Sir Orlando opposed him, and he thought that Sir Orlando’s opposition was founded on jealousy, then he despised Sir Orlando. But had he believed in Sir Orlando’s belief in the new ships, he would have been capable of pressing Sir Orlando to his bosom, although he might have been forced to oppose Sir Orlando’s ships in the Cabinet.”

The Duke would rather have an honest enemy than a false friend.

Because of his social awkwardness, being neither gregarious nor communicative, other people often don’t quite know what to make of the Duke, and misjudge him:

During this time the Duke was at the Castle, but he showed himself seldom to his guests,—so acting, as the reader will I hope understand, from no sense of the importance of his own personal presence, but influenced by a conviction that a public man should not waste his time. He breakfasted in his own room, because he could thus eat his breakfast in ten minutes. He read all the papers in solitude, because he was thus enabled to give his mind to their contents. Life had always been too serious to him to be wasted. Every afternoon he walked for the sake of exercise, and would have accepted any companion if any companion had especially offered himself. But he went off by some side-door, finding the side-door to be convenient, and therefore when seen by others was supposed to desire to remain unseen. “I had no idea there was so much pride about the Duke,” Mr. Boffin said to his old colleague, Sir Orlando. “Is it pride?” asked Sir Orlando. “It may be shyness,” said the wise Boffin. “The two things are so alike you can never tell the difference. But the man who is cursed by either should hardly be a Prime Minister.”

Sadly, without wanting to, the Duke’s behaviour can even give offence:

The Duke, always right in his purpose but generally wrong in his practice, had stayed at home working all the [Sunday] morning, thereby scandalising the strict, and had gone to church alone in the afternoon, thereby offending the social. 

Even his friends don’t quite know what to make of him, and whether to attribute his lack of expressiveness to arrogance or shyness:

“I am grateful to you for the manner in which it was performed.” This was all the Duke said, and Phineas felt it to be cold. The Duke, in truth, was grateful; but gratitude with him always failed to exhibit itself readily. From the world at large Phineas Finn received great praise for the manner in which he had performed his task.

Hitherto he had never found the Duke pleasant in conversation. Looking back he could hardly remember that he had in truth ever conversed with the Duke. The man had seemed to shut himself up as soon as he had uttered certain words which the circumstances of the moment had demanded. Whether it was arrogance or shyness Phineas had not known. His wife had said that the Duke was shy. Had he been arrogant the effect would have been the same. He was unbending, hard, and lucid only when he spoke on some detail of business, or on some point of policy. 

All this, coupled with his his generally inexpressive face, might make you think he is something of a cold fish, insensitive and unemotional. Nothing could further from the truth. He is particularly sensitive to criticism, and throughout the book several people comment on how thin-skinned he his:

The Duke was a man with whom it was very easy to work, whose courtesy to all dependent on him was almost exaggerated, who never found fault, and was anxious as far as possible to do everything for himself. The comfort of those around him was always matter of interest to him. Everything he held, he held as it were in trust for the enjoyment of others. But he was a man whom it was very difficult to advise. He did not like advice. He was so thin-skinned that any counsel offered to him took the form of criticism. When cautioned what shoes he should wear,—as had been done by Lady Rosina, or what wine or what horses he should buy, as was done by his butler and coachman, he was thankful, taking no pride to himself for knowledge as to shoes, wine, or horses. But as to his own conduct, private or public, as to any question of politics, as to his opinions and resolutions, he was jealous of interference. 

Nor is he lacking in empathy, even if he doesn’t show it:

And his heart was sad within him when he thought that he had vexed her [his wife],—loving her as he did with all his heart, but with a heart that was never demonstrative. When she was unhappy he was miserable, though he would hardly know the cause of his misery. Her ridicule and raillery he could bear, though they stung him; but her sorrow, if ever she were sorrowful, or her sullenness, if ever she were sullen, upset him altogether. He was in truth so soft of heart that he could not bear the discomfort of the one person in the world who seemed to him to be near to him. He had expressly asked her for her sympathy in the business he had on hand,—thereby going much beyond his usual coldness of manner.

So there you have the picture of the man. I rest my case.

With all these Aspie attributes, was he a successful Prime Minister? Well, no, not particularly. He wasn’t a bad one either. He managed to hold the coalition together, and to keep the business of government ticking over, but he did not achieve very much. I think, in the end, he really was too honest for the job. In the end, he comes to enjoy his position of power somewhat, and is a bit disappointed when his time in office is over, partly because he feels he should have achieved more. But he is a thoroughly sympathetic character, and a good person, and you can’t help wishing that there were more like him.

 

Image: No, this is not the Prime Minister, but Anthony Trollope, who wrote the book I’m talking about.

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5 thoughts on “The Autistic PM

Add yours

  1. Sounds like my kind of reading. Definitely going to look for this one! These are the sorts of characters I am always drawn to. Naturally. ☺

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Just to reply to both of you: read the book if you like long Victorian novels. Also I should say that there are two plots going on at once in this novel, independent of each other, and this character gets 50% of screen time at most.
    Trollope wrote a ton of books, and I’m sure he knew a great many people, so the character of the Duke might well be based on someone he knew. I think it goes to show that spectrumy people have always been around, only there was no collective way of describing them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ooh, yes. Victorian era is a favorite of mine. And I definitely agree about spectrumy people always being around. It’s interesting spotting the characteristics across the ages.

    Liked by 1 person

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