This volume, edited by Boel Westin (Jansson’s biographer) and Helen Svensson and translated by Sarah Death, includes a selection of 160 of Tove’s surviving letters held in private and public collections. Tove was a regular and detailed correspondent but this book acknowledges that close friends have destroyed her personal correspondence. Each letter grouping has a description putting them in context in her life, but other than that the reader has little idea where the individual letters sit within her corpus. Nevertheless, even to the relatively ill-informed (this reviewer), they show aspects of her life clearly and, in the early parts at least, form a compulsive and attractive read before the need for later coverage dictates harder choices.

Unless they have spotted the brilliant collection of her writing published recently by Sort Of Books, most people will associate the name Tove Jansson with her writings about “the Moomins” who became international “superstars” in the ‘40s. Tove produced both text and illustrations. Never having been attracted to the books themselves, the information on their context as first children’s, then crossover, tales and their political context had completely passed me by – another re-read is due. Being the “wrong age” I was unaware that there were widely syndicated cartoon strips or that they provided Tove with her first regular guaranteed income, offset by the need to concentrate on the Moomins at the expense of her other art and writing projects. Ironically, the business pressures of her rising international prominence seemed to put a stop to the scale of her private letters, the pressure clear in these letters

In this volume, the letters are clustered by their recipients in date order. Early on Tove would write to those close to her (family, friends, lovers – many of them artists or writers) and when she was away from them. The early letters are from France and Italy. They show her as a student selecting art across genres, but with mentions of her writing to generate income. They are chatty, giving strong impressions of her life away, how busy she was and the choices she was starting to make. But they show her awareness of increasing independence of living as a “single” rather than as one of her close creative family.

A cluster of letters were sent to friend Eva Konikoff, a photographer, who emigrated to the US. The editors make clear how Tove used her letters to her (some possibly never sent due to the war) to explore her thoughts on her developing artistic and private life. The impact of the war as it affected Finland and its horrendous losses are touched upon and hint at the personal trauma that would have followed. Throughout, we see her not always easy relationship with her family – her demanding father, a sculptor with alcohol problems, and her mother, an artist too, but who compromised on her chosen work to keep an income coming into the household. Later, a younger brother who would eventually settle into the “Moomin business”. But her family and their need for cross support in both artistic projects and basic things was always central to her life.

Letters show Tove’s underlying need to find a secure lover to spend her life with. A male partner will disappear; short-term others will pass through the letters until eventually, in 1955, Tove will meet and settle into a forty-year relationship with artist Tuulicki Pietila. The letters will show her difficulties balancing this with her closeness to her family. Complicated by Tove’s increasing need to establish her quiet island lifestyle as a spur to her creativity but melded with her partner’s need to find inspiration often elsewhere.

While this volume displays its “academic” provenance and role, it is nonetheless a brilliant depiction of a hugely creative woman multitasking and not just in her art. We see the scale and range of her commissions cutting across her other creative impulses and choices in both art and her writing. Although “single” and “childless” she was deeply embedded in her family. Coming from a difficult home life she eventually finds herself a settled place to live, within a quiet local rural community, with a loving partner from which she took great pleasure. They say a woman cannot have it all, but Tove worked hard and seemingly came close. This makes for a compelling read as we see the real woman, from a quiet country, set against the history of the 20th century and the sheer scale of her international artistic achievements. It forms a fine accompaniment to the increasing range of Tove’s writings from the Sort Of Books. And it points to her quiet genius in creating such calm and controlled prose when involved in so much juggling of hours and days. Truly inspirational.

Hilary White 4/3

Letters from Tove by Tove Jansson
Sort of Books 9781908745729 hbk Oct 2019