She was born in 1914 to two artists from the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland. Her mother, Signe Hammarsten, known as ‘Ham’, was an illustrator; her father, Viktor Jansson (‘Faffan’), was a sculptor. Her parents had lived and studied in Paris, but brought up their three children – Tove, Per Olov and Lars – in Helsinki, in a house dominated by Faffan’s work (Ham had a small desk in the corner of a room). They spent the summer on various islands in Pellinge, an archipelago in south-eastern Finland. Ham had been one of the first Swedish Girl Guides and taught her children to look at the world around them, to read the direction of the wind, the age of tree trunks, the forms of mosses, clouds, ant-hills. But although it appeared idyllic, family life was fractious. Jansson’s father was more interested in animals, including his pet monkey, than his children (one of Jansson’s brothers hid a photograph of Faffan playing with the monkey so she wouldn’t get jealous). He didn’t seem to think much of women, either. He hosted raucous, drunken, all-male gatherings, which Jansson would observe from a distance, later writing – in the childlike voice she sometimes used – that ‘all men have parties and are pals who never let each other down ... A pal never forgives, he just forgets and a woman forgives but never forgets. That’s how it is. That’s why women aren’t allowed to have parties. Being forgiven is very unpleasant.’
Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death with all the fun, dash and grace they need, these letters bear witness to a busily fulfilled — but never unexamined — life. Mostly, we hear only from Tove, although this volume’s conscientious commentaries quote a later letter from Atos Wirtanen (the two stayed close): ‘You yourself are all ages, from youngest to eldest, and perpetually at the start of your life.’ That nicely captures the wonderstruck buoyancy of the voice that speaks here. Atos adds that ‘there is a short and precise word for that: genius’.