When we meet Clifford, he's a good looking man. He's got a "ruddy, healthy-looking face" and "challenging bright eyes. His shoulders were broad and strong, his hands were very strong" (1.7). If it weren't for the wheelchair, he'd be breaking hearts right and left—especially because he's an aristocrat, and who doesn't want to marry a man with a title?
But there's something off about him. "In his face," the narrator says, "one saw the watchful look, the slight vacancy of a cripple" (1.7). (Don't look for political correctness here.) As the story goes on, Clifford degenerates. That ruddy, healthy face becomes fat; his bright eyes become "canny and shrewd" (19.38). Hilda sees right through him: she sees his well-bred expression as "sulky and stupid" (7.72). Earlier, we learn that "his manner was often offensively supercilious, and then again modest and self-effacing" (2.12). Well-bred and aristocratic, or fat and vulgar?
Clifford's story is sad when it's not infuriating, because it seems like, under different circumstances, he could have been something special.
He certainly has the breeding for specialness. Clifford's title and estate come with a heightened sense of his own importance, which includes a possessive feeling toward the trees on his estate: "He felt they were his own through generations. He wanted to protect them. He wanted this place inviolate, shut off from the world" (5.7). Now, the thing is that Clifford is only a baronet; he's barely an aristocrat. Baronets have titles, but they're not peers: they don't get to sit in the House of Lords, and they actually don't get be called "Lord," only "Sir."
He might be on shaky ground with the whole "lord of the manor" business, but that doesn't keep him from being "rather supercilious and contemptuous of anyone not in his own class. He stood his ground, without any attempt at conciliation" (2.11). Connie wishes she could connect with the miners of Tevershall; Clifford has no interest in them at all, or only interest "as objects rather than men, parts of the pit rather than parts of life, crude raw phenomena rather than human beings along with him" (2.14). He doesn't feel any connection with other people, not even his wife. No wonder she escapes to the arms of the gamekeeper.
The hypocrisy is that Clifford thinks it's other people who refuse to connect with him. When Connie leaves the room without kissing him goodnight, he watches her "with sharp cold eyes" and complains silently about the "depths of callousness in her" (10.375)—as though she could possibly want to kiss him.
But Connie's got his number. He may lord it over the servants, but she sees what he's really like: "a little vulgar, a little common and uninspired; rather fat" (9.3). All he seems to want out of Connie is the knowledge that he owns her, that he can do what he wants with her. That's probably why he refuses to give her a divorce; not because he really wants her around, but because he wants to know that he's got control over her.
As Connie (i.e., the good angel) loses her influence over him, and Ivy Bolton (i.e., the bad angel) gains it, Clifford becomes uglier and uglier. It's an ugliness that masquerades as success:
When it was a question of affairs, he was an absolute he-man, sharp as a needle, and impervious as a bit of steel. When he was out among men, seeking his own ends, and "making good" his colliery workings, he had an almost uncanny shrewdness, hardness, and a straight sharp punch [...] In business he was quite inhuman. (19.38)
The language here—"impervious," "uncanny," "inhuman"—warns us that there's something nasty going on with Clifford. He may think that he's completely separate from the miners, but in fact he's becoming more and more like them every day. Like them, he's an object, something elemental rather than truly human. Even Connie sees it, noting that "His very intensity and acumen in the affairs of the pits seemed like a manifestation of madness to her, his very inspirations were the inspirations of insanity" (15.4).
Clifford has his own character arc—and it's definitely a downward one—but he's also a stand-in for all the men of his generation, impotence and all. When his friends ask his opinion about sex, he gives a non-answer, saying that it "perfects the intimacy" between two people (4.38). His response, the narrator says, makes him as "uneasy as a woman in such talk." This womanliness makes him a typical man of his generation, the kind that Mellors scoffs at, the "sort of youngish gentleman a bit like a lady, and no balls" (14.15).
Another typical thing about Clifford is that he's not willing to admit that anyone is better than he is. "People must be more or less at his level, or below it," Connie realizes, feeling"the tightness [...] of the men of her generation. They were so tight, so scared of life!" (1.167-168).
With all the modern talk about being equal, Clifford refuses to admit that he's not at the pinnacle of his class or his gender. He does become a fairly successful writer because he writes extremely modern stories that he wants to be "of the best, ne plus ultra" (2.18), but the stories are empty. They have "no touch, no actual contact. It was as if the whole thing took place in a vacuum" (2.18). As empty as his own life is, his stories are just as bad—they're the kind that have unlikeable narrators and no satisfying ending. (Hmmm, we feel like we've read something like that...)
But maybe we can't actually blame Clifford. He may be unlikeably modern, but it's modernity that's made him this way—modernity in the form of the war, the "great shock of his maiming" (2.13). Connie realizes that his soul has received a "wounding shock," that "the wound to the soul begins to make itself felt, like a bruise, which only slowly deepens its terrible ache" (5.100).
We're talking about "shell shock" here, a term that comes directly out of the trauma of World War I. The book even begins with shock: "Our's essentially a tragic age," the narrator says. "The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins" (1.1). Clifford, unluckily for him, is one of those ruins.Clifford Chatterly's Timeline