Books

Hiding in Moominland: the conflicted life of Tove Jansson

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

Tove Jansson’s father was a sculptor specialising in war memorials to the heroes of the White Guard of the Finnish civil war. He did not like women. They were too noisy, wore large hats at the cinema and would not obey orders in wartime. Tove used to hide to spy on his all-male parties, where everybody got astoundingly drunk and attacked chairs with bayonets. ‘All men are chums who will never leave each other in the lurch,’ she concluded. ‘A chum doesn’t forgive, he just forgets — women forgive everything but never forget. Being forgiven is very unpleasant.’ Father and daughter had such a strained relationship that she sometimes had to run to the loo and vomit. She drew her first Moomin on the wall of an outside privy, gave it the features of Immanuel Kant and wrote beneath: ‘Freedom is the best thing’ — a principle she defended throughout the second world war, which she spent working as a cartoonist on a political magazine.

‘What I liked best was being beastly to Stalin and Hitler,’ she wrote, and her cartoons of them were regularly featured on the cover. One, drawn during the Munich Agreement, shows Hitler as a toddler screaming for ‘more cake’ while on all sides adults are offering him slices of cake decorated with the names of European countries. Amazingly, it got published. Russia invaded Finland and during peace negotiations Tove drew Stalin with a sword that starts huge, then detumesces. It didn’t get past the censor. She signed her fierce satires with the Moomin creature, a small, slit-eyed Fury.

Lovers came back from the war as heroes: reasonable men turned into chums who didn’t want to be forgiven. Her mother had ‘always given in, given up her life and not got anything back except children, whom the men’s war will kill, or make into bitter, negative people’. Tove loved her mother best of all. She wanted to live with her under a bell jar, or like two bears in a den. She discovered lesbian love. It was a crime in Finland until 1971. Her father couldn’t even bring himself to say the word aloud.


After the war, the other Finnish artists formed themselves into political groups but Tove wasn’t a joiner; besides, the only political activity she enjoyed was tyrant-baiting. She decided to emigrate to the island kingdom of Tonga but the governor wrote back saying there was a housing shortage and she wouldn’t be welcome. So she created her own Tonga: Moominland, a whole world inhabited by large, shy, eccentric hippo-like Moomins, hippies avant la lettre, like her own bohemian family on whom they were based.

The Moomin books took off in Sweden in 1952, but real success came in 1954 when Associated Newspapers decided to commission a comic strip for the London Evening News. Negotiations were tough: no death, no politics, no mention of the royal family. No character was to eat another, even if it wanted to. She must produce six strips a week for seven years. The strip sold to 40 countries and was read by 20 million. Tove became rich.

At home in Finland, the New Left was rising. It accused her of escapism and bourgeois values and denounced the Moomins as ruthless members of the upper class. Hate calls caused her to remove her number from the telephone directory.

Six strips a week. The millstone nearly pulled her under, but she trained up her brother and after 1959 he took over. Now she had money and time to travel, paint and write some marvellous books and stories, including her masterpiece, The Summer Book. Meanwhile, Moominmania was spreading. At home there were exhibitions, plays, operas, murals for schools and civic spaces — even artworks for a bank and a church, though she believed in neither. Global success pushed on, too. Walt Disney made an offer and was turned down. Moomin Week took over London. In Japan she was mobbed like a Hollywood superstar.

Her final lover was a woman uncannily like her mother. Lover and mother fought over Tove like jealous cats. Biographies invariably contain a section on her sexuality and this one is no exception. Its insight that the creatures in Moominland called the Hattifatteners ‘resemble a wandering flock of penises or condoms’ is a point to ponder when reading aloud at bedtime.

Tove Jansson: Work and Love is a beautiful book to look at; pictures and photographs swarm over the pages, but the text is a bit of a plod. It’s good on the various postwar Finnish art movements and it’ll fill you in at length on Moomin interrelationships, but it wanders around Jansson’s life in an indistinct way and is sometimes repetitive. If you wantto get excited about Tove Jansson, read her autobiographical writings: pure fireworks.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £16.50 Tel: 08430 600033

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