Dickens Vs Tolstoy - Who Will You Choose?

Are you a Dickens fan or are you Tolstoy? Both or Neither?

On the 2nd of October, an exhilarating battle between two of the greatest nineteenth-century novelists took place. A combination of outstanding performances, passionate debating and an instrumental audience resulted in an unforgettable night and an electrifying, atmospheric debate set against the dramatic backdrop of London’s Emmanuel centre, hosted by Intelligence Squared.

Two of literature's giants, Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy, faced off, with the support of some of the finest in theatre and education to finally put to rest who was the greater nineteenth-century novelist out of the two. The debate was chaired by BBC’s Bonnie Greer OBE, whilst Lord Northcliffe John Mullen cornered for Dickens, opposing historian Sir Simon Schama who defended Tolstoy.

With a stellar cast of some of TV and theatre's finest, including Julia Sawalha, Tom Hiddleston and Zawe Ashton, the audience were invited to express and declare their love for each of the literary giants. Through emotive stage performances and passionate, educated speeches we look at the similarities and differences, and why these two authors in have stood the test of time and are still greatly enjoyed by audiences spanning the globe today. And should they still be feared by most secondary school students of today?

Dickens, as stated by John Mullen, was childlike in his approach and in effect wrote childhood like no other. He was able to make real places transform; appearances shifting from normal and bleak to other worldly and mysterious. So much so that ‘Dickensian’ has become a well-placed adjective among English language for describing a setting or person in a certain way.

His characters are believable and relatable in the sense that often each individual one would have their own dialect and backstory ebbing through, via dress or speech. And let’s not forget he was a master of repetition and use of personification.

Tolstoy, as defended by Sir Simon Schama, was completely opposite. His novels appear to audiences often as big, daunting and forbidding. But being inside his books, unlike Dickens's theatrical approach, is like living in that place at that exact time. “If the world could write, it would write like Tolstoy.”

He never relied on characters, he relied on real people to tell his tales. Tolstoy was a soldier, a man who had experienced war and life in its darkest periods. Flamboyance disgusted him, because he’d seen humanity’s true nature.

However, that never stopped him from appreciating the former author's work too. Although having the complete opposite style of writing, Tolstoy enjoyed Dickens’s work and writing so much he had a framed portrait of the English author on display in his office today that you can tour.

Personally, I’m a lover of Charles Dickens, especially A Tale of Two Cities. I am a reader who enjoys getting lost in mystical worlds and varying realities. But whenever I feel disheartened with the world or its current circumstances, I often find myself journeying back to Tolstoy. For it is his writing that can make you truly appreciative of all that you have.

Intelligence Squared have kindly uploaded the debate in video form for all to watch online, either via their website of by their YouTube page. And I strongly recommend to you all to do so, especially younger students who are gazing with desperation and despair at the thick and foreboding Dickens and Tolstoy novels before you!

For in between excellent performances, and educational, comical debating skills, you shall see just how fun these two literary masters can be. I wonder, whose side you shall take, in the end?

Written by Melanie Whitlock

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