Book review: Tove Jansson - Life, art, work

Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomins. Picture: AP
Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomins. Picture: AP
Share this article
Have your say

Meticulously researched Portrait of the ‘Mamma of all the moomins’

Tove Jansson has never quite become the household name in this country she might have done, in spite of the success of the Moomins. The family of fairytale, hippo-like beings she created almost 70 years ago have become familiar to successive generations of children and adults, as much through the merchandising (which these days extends to things like bath caviar and silicone spatulas) as the original children’s books. But as an artist and writer of adult fiction, Tove Jansson remains less well known.

Sort of Books is on a mission to change that. In the past decade, it has published English translations of her work: seven volumes of short stories and novels so far, and, this year, the centenary of Jansson’s birth, Boel Westin’s authorised biography, seven years after its publication in Swedish. Westin, who is a professor of literature in the University of Stockholm, spent many hours with Jansson, from 1982 until her death in 2001, and continued to be in touch with Tuulikki Pietila, Jansson’s long-term partner, until she died in 2009.

Jansson was born in 1914 to a Finnish father, Viktor Jansson, a sculptor, and a Swedish mother, Signe Hammarsten, an illustrator and graphic artist. There were two younger brothers and the family lived in bohemian chaos in Helsinki with Jansson’s mother the main breadwinner. As a toddler, Jansson had pens thrust into her hands – photographs show the 18-month-old drawing confidently, sitting on her mother’s lap.

By her early twenties, Jansson was earning her living as an illustrator for a left-wing newspaper called Garm but it wasn’t until 1945 that she produced her first Moomin book. The Moomins and the Great Flood, about how Moomintroll and his Moominmamma have lost his father and, after many dangerous adventures, are eventually reunited with him, was Jansson’s response to the catastrophe of war. But with its gloomy sepia illustrations, it went largely unnoticed, selling just 219 copies in its first year.

More Moomin adventures followed, including the now classic Finn Family Moomintroll, and in 1954, Jansson signed a contract for a Moomin strip cartoon for the London Evening News. Syndicated in 20 countries within two years, it made her rich, but Westin says that she was never comfortable in the limelight and felt increasingly confined by the demands that her success made on her. Among the thousands of offers she turned down was one from Walt Disney and another from a firm that wanted to print the Moomintrolls on its sanitary towels.

As for her private life, about which Westin is quite guarded, Jansson was never short of lovers. After a succession of men, Jansson “went over to the spook side” as she put it, a coded expression for homosexuality – at the time illegal. And it was a revelation. In 1955 she met Tuulikki Pietila, a graphic artist who became the love of her life and inspired the character of Too-Ticky in the Moomins.

They lived not quite together in two studios in Helsinki, connected by a corridor, and spent their summers on Klovharun, a small island in the archipelago in the Gulf of Finland. The beautiful seascapes and solitude inspired many of Jansson’s best writing, including The Summer Book, her enchanting story of a grandmother who spends a single summer with her six-year-old granddaughter on just such an island, making things, pottering and fishing.

Westin, having previously written a PhD dissertation on Jansson’s “ideologies and philosophies”, was given complete access to Jansson’s huge archive of diaries, letters, illustrated notes, sketches and pictures – but for all its meticulous, scholarly research this 500-page book is too much the uncritical, sprawling thesis to catch the heartbeat. Westin herself has admitted she has had to be sensitive to family and friends who are still alive, that “Tove didn’t tell me everything and that there were things left out”, which is a shame but leaves room for another biography.