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The island life of Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson and partner Tuulikki Pietilä on the island of Klovharun with their cabin behind them - Credit: © Moomin Characters™

Writers have long been drawn to islands. Few have managed to express – and satisfy – that yearning like Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomins 

“If I could wish something good for someone, I would wish for them an island with no address.”

When Tove Jansson wrote those words sitting in her Helsinki apartment in 1962, the tiny cottage on the tiny island of Klovharun in which she would spend her summers for the next three decades was still two years away. The idea of genuine seclusion must have felt like a fantasy.

The popularity of the Moomins, the wise, bovine creatures she’d created at the tail end of the Second World War, was at its height and the global fame that went with it was proving to be as draining as it was rewarding. While she wrote three more Moomin books and still meticulously answered her fan mail she had in 1959 handed over the writing and illustrating of the daily Moomins syndicated comic strip to her brother Lars.

“I never spare them a thought now it’s over,” she wrote to a friend in 1962. “I’ve completely drawn a line under all that. Just as you wouldn’t want to think back on a time you had toothache.”

Retreat to an island seemed like the perfect way to stop the constant noise. A place of defined boundary, the sea making it all but impossible to have one’s privacy and solitude disturbed, an island, particularly a small one, holds a great attraction for writers.

Finns have a particular affinity for islands, not least because Finland has more of them than any country in the world except neighbouring Sweden. Roughly 188,000 islands and islets lie off the coast and in the thousands of lakes that leave roughly 10% of the country permanently underwater. The Finns have a highly developed cabin culture: one in five Finnish households, have a second residence, a mökki, a simple cabin or cottage by a lake or on an island to which they decamp for summer weekends and holidays, returning to nature for peace and solitude.

It’s 20 years this week since Tove Jansson died in 2001 at the age of 86. For most of her life she spent her summers on an island and from 1964 it was tiny Klovharun in the Gulf of Finland a few miles east of Helsinki.

It’s more islet than island – it takes less than five minutes to walk around it – and the cabin itself consists of just one room with two cots, two chairs, a stove, a table, a desk and a trap door in the floor leading to the sauna beneath. There’s a tiny inlet to moor a boat, a small footbridge to the cabin door, a natural pool of brackish water and that’s it. It was plenty for Jansson and her partner, artist Tuulikki Pietilä, to while away their summers reading, writing, swimming, cooking and contemplating.

“This island of mine is a complete world of its own; it has everything and is just the right size,” said Moominpappa in Jansson’s Moominpappa at Sea. “How happy I feel! I’ve got the world in my paw!”

Islands have always drawn writers, from George Orwell on Jura to Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa, from To the Lighthouse to Lord of the Flies, but few writers have both captured and been captured by the very essence of an island as Tove Jansson.

Helsinki-born, Jansson spent most of her childhood summers on different islands of the Pellinki archipelago with her sculptor father Viktor, illustrator mother Signe, known as ‘Ham’, and brothers Per Olov and Lars. The family were from Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority and Ham had been an early member of the Swedish girl guides, keen to foster an appreciation of the outdoors in her own children.

As she grew up Jansson was determined to secure her own island space. She’d always hoped to find one with a lighthouse but when that proved impossible she rented one of the Pellinki islands with her brother that was used by the entire Jansson clan.

If she’d sought summer solitude the constant stream of visitors and parties wasn’t really conducive, so eventually with Pietilä, whom she’d met at a party in 1955, Jansson found Klovharun. Far enough from the shore to dissuade most casual visitors but still close enough to row for provisions, on the face of it it’s not a particularly bucolic spot.

“Soon, I’ll start waiting for spring,” Jansson wrote to a young fan in 1967, “then, I go to my island in the Finnish Gulf, a tiny one with no trees or bushes, only rock and some wild flowers.”

Planning permission to build a cabin proved tricky to attain. Having embarked on the bureaucratic process Jansson and Pietilä would stay on the island in a tent pitched among the rocks. When a local builder told the couple it was unlikely permission would be granted at all, Jansson’s island dream looked to be in doubt. Then he told her that under Finnish law it was illegal to tear down a structure already built even without planning permission and advised them to start building anyway.

The cabin was ready for the summer of 1965 and the couple commenced nearly three decades of spending almost half of every year on their tiny outcrop. They could combine their artistic pursuits with the necessities of life without mod cons: chopping firewood, fishing and repairing the cabin roof after storms.

The challenges were part of what Jansson loved about the island. They had to row to the mainland for supplies and there was no electricity or running water. When heat was required it came from the stove. Oil lamps were the only source of light. When storms came there was nowhere to hide; the couple were at the mercy of the gales blowing into the Gulf of Finland from the Baltic Sea.

“The family got all worked up and took delight in disaster as usual,” she wrote of one storm that broke when the couple had visitors. “Lasse and I rushed round looking at the breakers, the usual waterfalls started up and the inlet turned into a torrent. Before we knew it the water was up to the sauna and there was the usual boat business, ropes tangling in all directions.”

Storms aside, the couple could settle into a routine that comprised a kind of sumptuous ascetism. Out on the island they couldn’t walk far and there was little to distract them yet they were surrounded by nature, with the combination of sea, sky, weather and light always shifting to make any glance out of the window look different from the last. The island may have been small but it was never cramped or claustrophobic: with horizons all around them Klovharun was the antithesis of dark winters in busy Helsinki.

“We rarely clean the house and only have the occasional wash, with much brouhaha and pans of hot water on the ground outside,” wrote Jansson. “Then we do our own private thing until dinner, which we eat sometime in the middle of the day, our noses in our books… And so the days pass in blessed tranquillity.”

Viktor Jansson had died in 1958. Tove was never close to her father but she was close to Ham, who died during the summer of 1970. “The summer continues, just as beautiful,” she wrote from the island to a friend, “and the work continues.”

After Ham’s death that work comprised almost entirely of books for adults, perhaps most notably with the 1972 publication of The Summer Book. Outside the Moomins The Summer Book is Jansson’s masterpiece, the story of a young girl called Sophia – based on her niece – and her grandmother over a single summer spent on an island shortly after the death of her mother.

We witness the intimate moments between Sophia and her grandmother as the older woman helps her explore the rocks and pools, the sea life and the birds, and we eavesdrop on their conversations about life and death, right and wrong. A worldly wisdom is distilled in two people within the confines of a small island surrounded by sea.

The island – “a sanctuary for someone with work to do, a wild garden for someone growing up, but otherwise just days on top of days, and passing time” – effectively becomes the world, expanding way beyond its physical confines. More than a setting, it’s a context, a presence, almost a character in itself.

“An island can be dreadful for someone from outside,” Jansson writes. “Everything is complete, and everyone has his obstinate, sure and self-sufficient place. Within their shores, everything functions according to rituals that are as hard as rock from repetition, and at the same time they amble through their days as whimsically and casually as if the world ended at the horizon.”

At the start of the 1990s island life was proving too much for the now elderly couple. A motorboat had replaced the rowing boat but it became clear that age and a remote island were not a safe combination.

“And last summer, something unforgivable happened: I started to fear the sea,” Jansson wrote in 1993. “The giant waves no longer signified adventure but fear, fear and worry for the boat and all the other boats that were sailing in bad weather.”

They bequeathed the island to Pellinge Hembygdsförening, a local heritage association, who organise guided tours and artists’ retreats there, maintaining and preserving the cottage and its contents. Inside it’s almost as if Jansson has just stepped out for a moment and will be back shortly with some apples and a cabbage in a string bag, inspecting the callouses forming on her palms with all the rowing.

Islands have a long history of inspiring writers and on Klovharun more than anywhere else it’s possible to feel why. Twenty years after her death, the contentment Tove Jansson found there is still tangible.

“I miss those quiet June days when you were piecing together your mosaic or whittling away at some knotty bit of wood and it was possible to listen, contemplate and explore how we felt,” Jansson wrote to Pietilä of their early years on the island.

There is a certain kind of wisdom to be found when one is bound on all sides by the sea. Islands create introspection, horizons demand contemplation. Some have the ability to tune in to both at exactly the right frequency, a very select few have the words and imagination to express them. The Summer Book is its perfect distillation.

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson is published by Sort Of Books, price £8.99. Tove is released in UK cinemas on July 9

FIVE GREAT BOOKS ABOUT ISLANDS

LOVE OF COUNTRY: A HEBRIDEAN JOURNEY

Madeleine Bunting (Granta, £9.99)

Written over the course of six years spent travelling to, from and around the Western Isles, Bunting’s thoughtful and erudite book is a wonderful distillation of history, culture and landscape. Many have attempted to capture the feel of the Outer Hebrides, few have succeeded as well as this.

TO THE LIGHTHOUSE

Virginia Woolf (Vintage Voyages, £8.99)

Set on the Isle of Skye, Woolf’s extraordinary novel centres on the Ramsay family’s summer home on the island which remains empty through years of war and death until one day the family return to make the long-postponed visit to the lighthouse.

ISLAND DREAMS: MAPPING AN OBSESSION

Gavin Francis (Canongate, £20)

From the Faroe Islands to the Galapagos, Francis examines our collective fascination with islands. Blending tales of his own travels with philosophy and great voyages from the past this is a wonderful examination of how and why islands intrigue and tantalise.

THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET

David Mitchell (Sceptre, £9.99)

Sometimes overlooked among Mitchell’s outstanding canon that includes Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, this 18th century tale of the man-made island of Dejima off Nagasaki from which all foreign trade with Japan had to be conducted is a beautifully told love story and vivid evocation of an island and an era.

ISLANDER: A JOURNEY ROUND OUR ARCHIPELAGO

Patrick Barkham (Granta, £9.99)

From the remote and abandoned St Kilda archipelago in the North Atlantic to tiny Ray Island off the coast of Essex this is a fascinating journey around Britain’s island fringe. Mixing travel, history and landscape writing, Barkham’s book will make an islophile of you even if you’re not one already.