marshtide: (Too-ticki)
[personal profile] marshtide
Another image-heavy post, I'm afraid! This became some kind of odd scrapbook business. & Tove Jansson is essentially one of our house-gods, so there was no chance I was ever going to keep this brief.

Written for [personal profile] ar's She's Kind of a Big Deal: Women Worth Knowing About!


She's Kind of a Big Deal: Tove Jansson
[Photo: a woman sits at a cluttered desk. She's holding a cigarette and looking at the camera.]

Who she was: Tove Jansson was born in Helsinki in 1914 to parents who were both artists. Her father was a Finland-Swedish sculptor (that is to say, a part of the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland) and her mother was a Swedish illustrator.

She grew up in a pretty bohemian household, with parents who viewed being an artist as a perfectly acceptable profession, and from childhood spent her summers on islands, which led to a life-long fascination. When she was young the family spent their summers on Blidö, which is part of the Stockholm archipelago, and actually not far from where I live at all! As an adult she lived in houses on a couple of different islands in the gulf of Finland, the first of which she and her brother built together, and the second of which was even further from the mainland, built by herself, her partner Tuulikki, and a bunch of local men reputed to be pirates.

[Photo: Tove Jansson sits outside a wooden house. This is the house she and her brother built together, which was used by them and their family every summer.]

[Photo: a tiny wooden house on a tiny rocky island; the house is Tove Jansson's pirate-built summer home, and the island is Klovharun]

For much of her later life she was one of Finland's most visible lesbians (though she might not have used the word and the press never really leapt on it), living, travelling and attending public functions with artist Tuulikki Pietilä.

[Photo: two women sit side by side at a wooden table outdoors. They're both focused on their own projects. Tove Jansson, left, and Tuulikki Pietilä, right.]

She died in 2001 in Helsinki.

What she did: Tove was both an artist and a writer, although she's mostly remembered for her Moomin books, which are by this time cultural icons. They're often reported to be about little white trolls who have harmless adventures and are very sweet. This is questionable.

[Image: an illustration from a Moomin book. Moomin characters sit in a boat which is tipping wildly as a giant fish splashes in the water beside them]

One calm and cloudless evening, towards the end of April, Snufkin found himself far enough to the north to see still-unmelted patches of snow on the northern slopes.

He had been walking all day through undisturbed landscapes, listening to the cries of the birds also on their way northwards, home from the south.

Walking had been easy, because his knapsack was nearly empty and he had no worries on his mind. He felt happy about the wood and the weather, and himself. Tomorrow and yesterday were both at a distance, and just at present the sun was shining brightly red between the birches, and the air was cool and soft.

"It's the right evening for a tune," Snufkin thought. A new tune, one part expectation, two parts spring sadness, and for the rest just the great delight of walking alone and liking it.

--Tove Jansson, The Spring Tune (in Tales from Moominvalley)

[Image: Illustration from short story The Invisible Child. Moominmamma leads what is apparently an empty dress and a floating bow up the stairs of the Moomins' house. The other family members watch on anxiously. The empty dress is actually occupied by a child who has been so badly abused by a mean aunt that she has become invisible in self-defence.]

In actuality she wrote increasingly nuanced and often disturbing books in beautifully spare language, both for children and for adults, and regularly exhibited paintings, feeling that there was a tension between her identity as a writer and her identity as an artist - with her success in the former field taking time away from what she felt was her "real" job. The fact is that she was extremely talented in both areas (and was a successful artist before she got off the ground as a writer).

She was politically interested, though generally depressed by the whole thing, and a dedicated anti-faschist (which created tension with her father). During the second world war she was a political cartoonist, and was censored several times.

[Image: a family portrait painted by Tove Jansson, depicting her family during the tense war period. Her mother sits to the far left, and her father stands in the background on the right. Her brothers sit in the foreground. Tove herself stands in the centre but in the background. The atmosphere is somber; everyone looks in different directions.]

The Moomins actually came about in this period as a kind of idyllic family & a kind of escapism, but their story became more and more complicated as the books went on until there wasn't much of an idyl left at all; Tove was possibly too honest to not own up to the other side of the picture.

The Hemulen woke up slowly and recognised himself and wished he had been someone he didn't know. He felt even tireder than when he went to bed, and here it was - another day which would go on until evening and there would be another one and another one which would be the same as all days are when they are lived by a Hemulen.

He crept under the bedcover and buried his nose in the pillow, then he shifted his stomach to the edge of the bed where the sheets were cool. He took posession of the whole bed with outstretched arms and legs, he was waiting for a nice dream that wouldn't come. He curled up and made himself small but it didn't help a bit. He tried being the hemulen that everybody liked, he tried being the hemulen that no-one liked. But however hard he tried he remained a hemulen doing his best without anything really coming off. In the end he got up and pulled on his trousers.


Suddenly the Hemulen thought that all he ever did was to move things from one place to another or talk about where they should be put, and in a moment of insight he wondered what would happen if he let things alone.

-- Tove Jansson, Moominvalley in November (this is how November feels. I've mentioned that I hate November right? Only every other post, I think.)

She also worked as an illustrator, doing drawings for amongst others the Swedish & Finish translations of Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit (neither of which are popular with hardcore fans of either book, I gather, but which I think are gorgeous, if occasionally rather liberal).

[Image: Illustration of a scene from Alice in Wonderland. I can't remember who everyone is, but there's a screaming baby in the foreground who I'm pretty sure is the one who screams until he turns into a pig. The cheshire cat is sitting on top of a hearth in the background, and alice stands to the left, covering her face.]

[Image: Illustration of the mad hatter's teaparty from Alice in Wonderland. The figures of the characters are tiny on the left hand side of the image; the mad hatter's house, which is in the shape of a giant hare's head, dominates. Actually, the hare makes me think of Miyazaki, for some reason. This is fairly typical of a lot of Tove's illustrations, where small figures disappear into a strange, dominant landscape.]

[Image: Illustration from The Hobbit. Smaug attacks Laketown.]

As an artist she changed her style a lot over time; it's pretty hard to actually find that much of her work around now, though, because it's so overshadowed by the little trolls. Here are a couple from a book about her, though:

[Image: A painting by Tove Jansson. Tuulikki Pietilä at work, bent over a desk.]

[Image: An early self-portrait by Tove Jansson. A girl sits by a table and looks straight out of the painting.]

[Image: A later painting by Tove Jansson in a more modern style. A red coat hangs on a chair.]

As a writer she told a lot of pretty unusual stories. Although the Moomin family can look quite normative at first glance there's a lot of peculiar and subversive stuff going on there, and in many of her books for adults she wrote with a strong focus on women, often older women; she's been praised for her writing about age and her humanising of older people in her writing. She also wrote queer stories, although often quite subtly, because she was not of a generation where it was particularly OK - but they're there, most obviously in Fair Play, and in a number of her short stories.

Jonna had a happy habit of waking each morning as if to a new life, which stretched before her straight through to evening, clean, untouched, rarely shadowed by yesterday's worries and mistakes.

Another habit - or rather a gift, equally surprising - was her flood of unexpected and completely spontaneous ideas. Each lived and blossomed poerfully for a time until suddenly swept aside by a new impulse demanding its own undeniable space. Like now, this business about the frames. Several months earlier, Jonna had decided she wanted to frame some of the pictures by fellow artists that Mari had on her walls. She made some very pretty frames, but when they were ready to hang, Jonna was seized by new ideas and the pictures were left standing around on the floor.

"For the time being," Jonna said. "And for that matter, your whole collection needs rehanging, top to bottom. It's hopelessly conventional." Mari waited and said nothing. In fact, it felt good having things unfinished, a little as if she'd just moved in and didn't have to take the thing so seriously.

Over the years she'd learnt not to interfere with Jonna's plans and their mysterious blend of perfectionism and nonchalance, a mix not everyone can properly appreciate. Some people just shouldn't be disturbed in their inclinations, whether large or small. A reminder can instantly turn enthusiasm into aversion and spoil everything.

-- Tove Jansson, Changing Pictures, from Fair Play.

She was a feminist, and her earlier relationships with men suffered from her refusal to marry or have children, as she felt it would get in the way of her work (a belief presumably partly based on her parents' relationship, where her father was the artist first and her mother was the mother first and the artist second. Even though she was also the one who earned the family enough money to live with her art).

I have to admit she's something of an icon to me in her personal life as well as for being a brilliant artist & writer. She was sharp, independent; she liked to do everything she could for herself. She had amazing creative drive. She both tried her damned hardest to live in and wrote about a different kind of ideal, one not anchored in constant romantic attachment and codependence but one which allowed room for both everyone to breathe and, importantly, work. She and Tuulikki lived together in their tiny house on the island, but in Helsinki during the winters they had separate flats in the same building.

[Photo: Tove Jansson sits and works on the floor in the middle of her rather chaotic flat/studio. There are canvases and picture frames everywhere.]

It seems to have worked out for them, and their story always kind of makes me smile, though I'm sure I'm idealising it; they could both definitely be very difficult people. But the fact that they seem to have had something that worked anyway is great!

[Photo: Tove Jansson and Tuulikki Pietilä in a boat. Tove stands & holds up a fishing net; Tuulikki rows. Both are laughing.]

I also think her perception of the world is amazing, though it can't be explained; it can only be picked up by looking through her work, I think.

[Image: a line-drawing self-portrait by Tove Jansson]

Ways to appreciate her:


Many of Tove Jansson's books are translated to English (and plenty of other languages). All of the Moomin story books are currently in print in the US and the UK, and the three picture books she did in the Moomin world are also in print in the UK, although possibly not the US.

A tiny publishing company called Sort Of Books is releasing her other books right now in the UK, and I gather a buch of them have been re-released in the US at the same time, though I'm not sure exactly which are available there. They've put out new editions of or translated for the first time:

The Summer Book (an old woman and her granddaughter spend a summer on an island together)
A Winter Book (a collection of short stories drawn from various different collections)
Fair Play (my favourite - a depiction of two women growing old together, living and working and travelling. a love story. kind of.)
The True Deceiver (a very tense, terrifying book, which takes place in a little village which is completely snowbound for the winter. A young woman who is seen by the village as an outsider moves into the home of an elderly artist on the edge of town. Full of deception and manipulation - but who is manipulating who?)
Travelling Light (Collection of short stories)

I'm kind of hoping that they'll pick out Sculptor's Daughter for release, which is one of her close-to-autobiographical books about her childhood. It has been published in English, but has been out of print for years; I did manage to find a copy in my local library when I lived in the UK, though!


To see her artwork you need to go to Finland, which isn't something I've managed yet myself! (Even though it's just across the water.) The Tampere Art Museum has a collection of her works.

Associated reading: English

There's very little available in English when it comes to academic texts about Tove Jansson's work, biography, or anything else really.

But here's the one that does exist:

Tove Jansson Rediscovered, edited by Kate McLoughlin and Malin Lindström Brock, published 2007 by Cambridge Scholars Publishing, is a collection of papers about many different aspects of Tove Jansson's life and work. The papers aren't of even quality, but many of them are brilliant. The essays cover disciplines from queer studies to art history and beyond.

Associated reading: Swedish

In Swedish there are, conversely, about a million books about Tove Jansson's life and work.

My personal favourites are the books by Boel Westin:

Tove Jansson: ord, bild, liv, published in 2007 by Schildts, is an extensive biography, well-written and full of great information and pictures.

Familjen i dalen: Tove Janssons muminvärld, published in 1988 by Bonnier, is an analysis of Tove's Mumin books.

Links: English

- A virtual gallery with information, art and photographs relating to Tove Jansson

- Information put together in connection with a Moomin 65th anniversary exhibition

- A collection of Tove Jansson's illustrations

[Image: A short-haired Tove Jansson looks off to one side of the photographer. She's holding her glasses, one arm of them against her mouth.]
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