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Dickens vs Tolstoy: The Battle of the Great 19th-century Novelists

We lined up the best advocates to make the case for each writer. They called on a cast of star actors, including Tom Hiddleston, to bring their arguments to life with readings from the authors’ finest works..

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.



Bonnie Greer

Author, playwright and broadcaster

Author, playwright and broadcaster. Her plays have been produced on the BBC and in the West End. She was Deputy Chairman of the British Museum’s Board of Trustees and is former Chancellor of Kingston University. She is an Honorary Doctor of Writing from Kingston, and an Honorary Doctor of Drama from The Royal Glasgow Conservatoire.

John Mullan

Professor and author

Professor of English Literature at University College London and former Booker Prize judge who specialises in 18th century literature. He is the author of What Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved

Simon Schama

Historian, author and broadcaster

University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University and a Contributing Editor of the Financial Times. He is the author of nineteen multi-awarded books, and the writer-presenter of fifty documentaries on art, history and literature for BBC2. His most recent series was Civilizations, a BBC series on world art, which was aired in 2018. His latest book, Wordy. Sounding Off on High Art, Low Appetite and the Power of Memory, was published in May 2019.

Zawe Ashton

Actor who has starred in Wanderlust & Fresh Meat

Actor who has starred in Wanderlust, Fresh Meat and will soon be seen in Velvet Buzzsaw. She has appeared in numerous West End shows, including Splendour and The Maids. Her screen credits include Greta, Nocturnal Animals, Dreams of a Life, Misfits, Sherlock and Guerrilla. Zawe is also a writer, director and producer. Her directorial debut Happy Toys was nominated for Best British Short at the Raindance Film Festival and her first book Character Breakdown is due for release in April 2019.

Tom Hiddleston

Actor who has starred in The Night Manager

Actor who has starred in the BBC’s The Hollow Crown and The Night Manager, for which he won a Golden Globe. His film credits include Avengers: Infinity War, Thor: Ragnarok, and War Horse. On stage he has appeared in Hamlet, Coriolanus, Ivanov, Othello, Cymbeline, and The Changeling.

Kit Kingsley


Student at Westminster Under School, aged 10. Roles include Jadis in The Magician’s Nephew, The Evil Queen in Snow White and Thomas O’Malley in the Aristocats. He recently won the school reading competition with his rendition of Jacques’ ‘All the World’s a Stage’. This event was his professional debut.

Julia Sawalha

Actor who has starred in Absolutely Fabulous

Actor who has starred in the BBC’s Absolutely Fabulous, Cranford and Larkrise to Candleford. Her film credits include the voice of Ginger in Chicken Run and Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie. On stage she has appeared in The Memory of Water at the Vaudeville and Dearest Daddy, Darling Daughter at the Young Vic.

Timothy West

Film and theatre actor

Actor who has starred in Edward the Seventh, Hard Times and Crime and Punishment. He was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company for three seasons, and has played Macbeth, King Lear and Uncle Vanya on stage. His film credits include The Day of the Jackal, The Thirty-Nine Steps and Oliver Twist. He has also appeared in Coronation Street and EastEnders.