Tove Jansson: Daughter, Artist, Writer

I was rummaging around on my blog and found the beginning of this post. For some reason I never finished it. It’s about two books that I got for myself as Christmas presents, that I read and loved throughout the winter holidays, and yet I never managed to review them. These two beautifully bound books (collectors’ items) are by and about one of my favourite writers, Swedish-speaking Finnish author Tove Jansson, creator of my beloved Moomins.

Tove at work, picture from The Guardian.
Tove at work, picture from The Guardian.

sculptorsdaughterTove Jansson: Sculptor’s Daughter (transl. Kingsley Hart)

These are semi-autobiographical pieces describing Tove’s childhood, her artistic parents and the great parties they gave, holidays at the seaside, being snowbound in a strange house, being ill with German measles. But in actual fact they are slightly surreal prose poems, exploring the big questions of life, death, beauty and truth, danger and safety, and the importance of art. And all is described through a child’s eyes, with limpid clarity, elegance and understatement. Jansson is a sophisticated stylist, leaving out so much in both her painting and her writing, implying more than saying outright.

tovejanssonTuula Karjalainen: Tove Jansson: Work and Love (transl. David McDuff)

Although I had read somewhere that Moominpappa and Moominmamma were based on Jansson’s own parents, I hadn’t realised just how close she was to her family, nor how many personal difficulties and disappointments she had to face in her own life. She was very versatile: painter, illustrator, writer, stage designer, playwright, poet, political caricaturist, cartoonist – and although she occasionally complained of writer’s block (especially during the war), her output was prodigious. But her biographer can speak much more eloquently on her behalf:

‘Work and love were the things that mattered most to her throughout her life – and in that order. Tove’s life was fascinating. She challenged conventional ways of thinking and moral rules in a country where old prejudices … maintained a strict hold. She was a revolutionary, but never a preacher or a demaogogue. She influenced the values and attitudes of her time, but was no flag-bearer – instead, she was a quiet person who remained uncompromising in her own life choices…. When she was still a little girl she wrote that “freedom is the best thing”. It remained of utmost importance throughout her life.’

I cannot explain just how much this book meant to me. At times inspiring, at times sad and haunting, it is not only the biography of an exceptional woman and artist, but also a powerful meditation on the choices we constantly have to make as daughters, friends, lovers and creators. How to be human. She deserves to be better known for all of her work: above all, for her pared down prose and great sensitivity. But I’ll end with the inevitable:  my favourite characters in her Moomin series.

Two of my favourite characters: Moomintroll and Snufkin. From
Two of my favourite characters: Moomintroll and Snufkin. From
Moominmamma, rushing around, trying to please everyone as usual. From
Moominmamma, rushing around, trying to please everyone as usual. From



28 thoughts on “Tove Jansson: Daughter, Artist, Writer”

  1. Yay for the Moomins! You’ve reminded me that I have an unread Moomin book on my shelf that I’ve been saving for myself as a treat. Hm. Do I deserve it yet . . .?

    I discovered a while back to my astonishment that Jansson and the Moomins are very little known over here in the US — certainly among my contemporaries. Most odd.

    1. I know what you mean about keeping the Moomins as a special treat. I’ve treated my children (well, OK then, myself) to nearly all the Moomin strips, in a beautifully bound new version. I think they never had the TV series in the US – and the comic strip version was commissioned specially for the UK.

  2. I’m so glad you took the time to finish this post and share it with us, Marina Sofia. It’s a lovely tribute, and of course, discussions of some great reading. I think most of us have discovered an artist (whether author, painter, musical artist, or someone else) who inspires us and whose work resonates with us. Thanks for sharing yours.

    1. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t finished this post, after all the delightful anticipation about acquiring and reading those books. It was a very sobering read in many ways, showing how adversity and sacrifices are integral to a creative life.

  3. A confession… While I loved watching the Moomins I’ve never read any Tove Jansson… having read your post something I feel I must address – any suggestions where best to start?

    Particularly liking Moominmamma… Very tempted to make it my avatar!

    1. I’m the other way round – read the books but never watched the series. (My best friend had a Finnish mother, so we grew up with them). It kind of makes sense to read them in order (the characters reappear and you’ll be puzzled otherwise). Finn Family Moomintroll is the first full book, I believe, Moominsummer Madness is very funny because it’s linked to theatre and performances. My personal favourites are Moominland Midwinter (you can tell I like my darker stories) and Moominpappa at Sea, which is kind of all about exile/migration.

  4. I had no idea just wonderful creatures exist. And this is why…cultural things and differences. Now I was big into the Borrowers and pick up one of the books to read and delight myself, to wonder when something disappears if it has gone to enhance the home of a Borrower. I think I’ll do a google on the Moomins and their oh so interesting creator. thank you for letting me know.

    1. I liked the Borrowers too, but the Moomins were so different from other children’s books. All those imaginary creatures, those surrealist (and often very funny) dialogues and a good dash of melancholy – very untypical of most children’s books. And yet my children loved them too! Hope you find and like them.

    1. Pleased you liked it, Jacqui! I too have such happy memories of the Moomins – although its sadder, deeper notes only struck me when I was rereading them with my children.

  5. Lovely post, Marina. You may have already come across this but just in case: a couple of years ago BBC4 made a lovely documentary about Tove Jansson. It’s no longer available on iPlayer but someone’s put it on Youtube ( My partner and I – both fans – watched it and loved it.

    1. It was little more than the title of the books and a quote or two, but I’m glad I did not give up on this post. It’s made me want to read all of her work now.

  6. I only know and read some of her books but I don’t know her as an author. It would be an interesting read, thank you!

    1. Check out the link to the video about her life that Susan suggests above. To see the places she grew up in and loved so much is tremendous!

  7. I’m only a recent convert to Jansson, but I absolutely adore her work – both Moomin and not. (I’m not going to differentiate between work for children and adults because there are no such simple divisions in her work). I read Sculptor’s Daughter recently and loved its unusual, dream-like quality and the way she got inside the mind of herself as a child. Wonderful!

    1. I so agree with you – her children’s books are not ‘childish’ at all, and her books for grown-ups have that child-like capacity for wonder which is really beautiful. So glad you discovered her, even if it’s only recently.

  8. What a wonderful post Marina, I’m so glad you finished it for us to share. I loved Finn Family Moomintroll as a child and also shared them with my own children. It is nice to read about Tove’s closeness to her family and her keen desire for freedom without being ‘preachy’

    1. My pleasure to share the joy – it seems we are many Jansson fans out there! I also like the idea that Little My was the alter ego who dared to say No and be rude to people, when Tove herself was polite and found it hard to offend others.

  9. There you go, I knew it, ALL the best people adored the Moomins. I only read a couple in my youth, and loved them, but bought most of the rest when I was very adult indeed! Re-reading them is always a comfort, and a pleasure. Can you hear that delightful melody, when spring happens, and Snufkin returns playing his song ‘All small creatures have bows in their tails’? And I SWEAR my flat is full of outlandish words which escaped the magician’s hat and are hiding behind and under the sofa. I hardly dare move it to check………..

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