He was the son of the rector of Hauxwell, North Yorkshire, and was privately educated by his father, Mark James Pattison. His sister was Dorothy Wyndlow Pattison ("Sister Dora"). In 1832, he matriculated at Oriel College, Oxford, where he took his B.A. degree in 1836 with second-class honours. After other attempts to obtain a fellowship, he was elected in 1839 to a Yorkshire fellowship at Lincoln College, Oxford, an anti-Puseyite College. Pattison was at this time a Puseyite, and greatly under the influence of John Henry Newman, for whom he worked, helping in the translation of Thomas Aquinas's Catena Aurea, and writing in the British Critic and Christian Remembrancer.
He was ordained priest in 1843, and in the same year became tutor of Lincoln College, where he rapidly made a reputation as a clear and stimulating teacher and as a sympathetic friend of youth. The management of the college was practically in his hands, and his reputation as a scholar became high in the university. In 1851 the rectorship of Lincoln became vacant, and it seemed certain that Pattison would be elected, but he was edged out. The disappointment was acute and his health suffered. In 1855, he resigned the tutorship, travelled to Germany to investigate Continental systems of education, and began his researches into the lives of the philologist Isaac Casaubon and the historian Joseph Justus Scaliger, which occupied the remainder of his life.
In 1861, he was at last elected rector of Lincoln College in Oxford, marrying in the same year Emily Francis Strong (afterwards Lady Dilke). As rector, he contributed largely to various reviews on literary subjects, and took a considerable interest in social science, even presiding over a section at a congress in 1876. However, he avoided the routine of university business, and refused the vice-chancellorship. But while living the life of a student, he was fond of society, and especially of the society of women. He died at Harrogate, Yorkshire.
His biography of Isaac Casaubon appeared in 1875; he also wrote about John Milton in Macmillan's "English Men of Letters" series in 1879. The late nineteenth-century English author George Gissing wrote in his diary in 1891 that he "was astonished to find [the biography of Casaubon] on the shelves" of a circulating library in the small north Somerset seaside resort of Clevedon. The 18th century, alike in its literature and its theology, was a favourite study, as is illustrated by his contribution (Tendencies of Religious Thought in England, 1688–1750) to the once famous Essays and Reviews (1860), and by his edition of Pope's Essay on Man (1869), etc. His Sermons and Collected Essays, edited by Henry Nettleship, were published posthumously (1889), as well as the Memoirs (1885), an autobiography deeply tinged with melancholy and bitterness. His projected Life of Scaliger was never finished.
Posterity has not been kind to Mark Pattison. For many he remains the stereotypical Mr DryasDust and/or the original of George Eliot's Edward Casaubon in Middlemarch; and his best-known twentieth-century commentator and critic, John Sparrow, did little to alter that picture. ...