Dickens. Tolstoy. Their names and reputations shake the ground – and so do their books, if you drop one. They are the two greatest novelists from the century when novels were really great. Both captured their countries’ very souls and, as vastly influential social reformers, savagely criticised them as well. But whose legacy is more enduring? Whose vision truer and more relevant today? Should you embark on War and Peace or Our Mutual Friend? To battle it out, Intelligence Squared are bringing two celebrated writers, John Mullan for Dickens and Simon Schama for Tolstoy, to our stage.
To his fans, Dickens is matchless for his compassionate heart and his brilliant caricaturist’s eye. The great champion of social justice in his era, he was also a master of class comedy. And no writer does pathos like Dickens. His settings haunt you – he virtually created the idea of Christmas, as well as that of Victorian London – and his characters are unforgettable. Remember Mr Micawber cheerfully saying ‘Something will turn up’? Oliver Twist bravely asking for some more? Or what about the heart-rending story of Little Nell? American fans of the serialised novel legendarily stormed the New York docks to ask transatlantic passengers arriving with the latest installment, ‘Is Little Nell dead?’
Tolstoy would never stoop to sentimentalism, his followers would say, still less caricature. You can’t imagine him writing The Old Curiosity Shop or A Christmas Carol. Or calling his characters Bumble, Gradgrind, Pecksniff or the Artful Dodger. Tolstoy is the quintessential Russian novelist, a profound spiritual and historical thinker whose radical, mystical ideas spawned a sect in his own lifetime. But like Dickens, he is also a supreme chronicler of emotion. No one has ever written so movingly about death, or passionate love. As Schama says, his books are ‘stained on every page with the juice of life’. Bewitching Natasha Rostova, noble Prince Andrei, tragic Anna Karenina – Dickens may make you laugh and cry, but Tolstoy makes you fall head over heels.
To help you decide who should be hailed as the supreme giant of the 19th-century novel we lined up the best advocates to make the case for each writer. And they called on a cast of star actors, including Tom Hiddleston, to bring their arguments to life with readings from the authors’ finest works.