In the late eighteenth century the number of entrants to the College fell, and its reputation stagnated. The 26th Rector, Edward Tatham, a colourful but brusque Yorkshireman, was a man of many parts, a scholar and writer of some distinction, who proffered advice to the Prime Minister, William Pitt, on the British economy during the early stages of the Napoleonic wars (claiming, somewhat ingenuously, to have invented the income tax). He was hostile to the reform of the Oxford examination system, made in the early years of the nineteenth century, because it did not take sufficient account of developments in modern philosophy and science. But he was politically a Conservative, a great admirer of Edmund Burke, and very critical of any challenge offered to established order in Church or State. He soon came into conflict with the Fellows, and his long reign - from 1792-1834 - saw a further deterioration in the College's reputation. During the latter part of his life he lived out at his rectory at Combe (where he engaged in battle royal with his parishioners), visiting Oxford but rarely.
Soon after matters improved, largely due to the ability and enthusiasm of a youthful scholar, Mark Pattison, elected to a Fellowhip in 1839.Â Pattison gathered a small group of like-minded Fellows who wished to improve the College's academic standing, but was opposed by the older members of the College's governing body. As a result, his hopes of being elected Rector in 1851 were frustrated. The election caused considerable scandal at the time, and a century later provided CP Snow with the plot for his novel The Masters, the scene being transposed to a Cambridge college. The fact that the election occurred when the Royal Commission on the University was sitting added to its notoriety. Nonetheless, alone among Oxford colleges, Lincoln re-wrote its own statutes as the Commission requested, and escaped the indignity of having reform thrust upon it. The new statutes survived a second Royal Commission of 1877, as a result of a vote in the House of Lords annulling a new code proposed that year, on a motion from the College's Visitor, Bishop Wordsworth of Lincoln, who believed that the proposals impugned his visitatorial powers.
Mark Pattison eventually became the College's 29th Rector in 1861. In the 23 years of his office the College's reputation improved greatly; entries increased further and men of genuine distinction were elected to Fellowships, the classical scholar, Henry Nettleship, the philosopher Samuel Alexander (the first Jew elected to a Fellowship in any college), the ancient historian Warde Fowler, the economic historian William Ashley, to name some of those who did much to raise the College's standing in the university.
Outside Oxford Pattison was known for his literary talents and his expansive as well as learned understanding of educational issues. His vision of the modern university in many ways looked forward to the longer-term development of higher education, emphasising research and scholarship of the highest quality, on lines that owed much to Pattison's knowledge of German institutions. Unfortunately for Pattison, contemporary Oxford was more concerned with the best way to prepare young Englishmen, most of them educated at public schools, for the task of governing a great and growing empire. Even so Pattison's activities and influence place him well to the fore in any picture of Victorian intellectual life.
His personal life was also the subject of much contemporary interest. The novelist George Eliot was a visitor to the Rector's Lodgings in Lincoln, and Pattison is thought to be the original of Dr Casaubon in her novel, Middlemarch. His marriage in 1861 to the clever and attractive Francis Strong, who was 21 to his 48 years and an artist taught by Ruskin and schooled in South Kensington, had considerably enhanced Pattison's social appeal as well as the fascination he evidently aroused among Victorian lady novelists. It was not, however, very happy. The young wife found Oxford stiflingly tedious - she called it 'the Hole'. She also watched the man who had been the literary lion of fashionable ladies at London parties becoming a depressed valetudinarian in his College setting. After fifteen years of marriage she withdrew from his bed and increasingly from his presence. The embittered Pattison responded by embarking on an intimate if ultimately rather innocent relationship with a young woman whom he had encountered in the home of a fellow head of college in Oxford, Meta Bradley. The scandal thereby created not only in Oxford but in London constricted their relations and brought Mrs Pattison back to Oxford. In the interim her own life had grown more complicated and included a close acquaintance with the Liberal politician, Sir Charles Dilke. In Oxford she showed no inclination to abandon the confidence and contacts that travels abroad as well as sojourns in London had brought her. The Fellows of Lincoln were not all impressed. The Rector's Lodgings became the place where, as one of them put it in later life, 'That Woman used to have her parties'. Bereft of Meta and resentful of his wife, Pattison himself withdrew more and more from College life. When he died in 1884 it was found that the former as well as the latter benefited by his will.
Mrs Pattison herself married Dilke a year later. Despite Dilke's disastrous involvement in sexual scandals that destroyed his career, his new wife proved a tireless protester of his innocence, and evidently found in her second marriage fulfilment that she had been denied by her first.