At the end of 2012, some 11 years after her death, Tove Jansson is having a bit of a moment.
Actually, the Finnish writer/artist/cartoonist has been having a moment for quite a while now. But 2012 has seen the UK publication of her very first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, causing Jeanette Winterson, no less, to out herself as a Jansson fan. Nearly every upmarket design store is now full of Moomin ceramics, Moomin dolls and Moomin books. And while, in truth, Jansson has never been out of print (the Penguin children's imprint Puffin has long been home to the Moomin novels), her reputation has been definitely on the rise of late. As the year draws to a close, the Scottish film director Eleanor Yule is about to give us the last word (or maybe the first if you haven't heard of her before) on Jansson with a documentary about the artist and her creations to be broadcast on BBC4 on Boxing Day.
Yule has previous when it comes to Scandinavian artists. Four years ago she gave us Michael Palin on the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi, and now, with contributions from Jansson fans including Esther Freud, Philip Ardagh and Frank Cottrell Boyce, she explores the way ideas of northern-ness, art and life weave and intertwine in Jansson's life. It's a story that takes in bohemianism, the Second World War and lesbianism and is something of a corrective to a widely held notion of Jansson as something of a hermit figure.
"If you read the front of the Penguin books it says she lived alone on a remote island, so there's a lot of mythology around her," explains Yule. "It's really far from the truth. Not only was she living with another woman for 30 years on the island, she was very much part of the arts scene in Helsinki. Her father was a sculptor and her mother created Finland's postage stamps, and she grew up in a very Bohemian studio with mad parties going on."
Jansson was a woman with a rich back story then. But it was her stories that were the impetus for the documentary. "I read those books to my children and found them so amusing," Yule says. I would get as much pleasure from them as the kids would. Moominpapa At Sea is about a male midlife crisis and it's extremely amusing, but the kids aren't getting that. They're just getting the adventure and they love that.
"She dealt with characters that no one else could be bothered with. A monogamous couple or an 86-year-old grandmother or a six-year-old child, the kind of characters who get left out, and the depth and the texture and the interest and drama and the humour she finds in those situations is incredibly moving. Making the documentary was an amazing chance to discover the truth about how she created those things and how much of her own very personal life she put in."
It was reading Jansson's adult novel The Summer Book that sealed the deal for Yule. She thought it was extraordinary. She's not the only one. Just ask the book's British publisher Natania Jansz. "I think before we'd finished the fourth page we were on the phone. It's one of those books that springs out at you as a true classic."
So who was this extraordinary talent then? Born in 1914, Jansson wanted to be an artist but after contributing satirical illustrations to magazine she created the first Moomins book while Finland was fighting the Soviet Union during the war. "This book was written in the grimmest time," says Jansz, "and she was escaping it."
While The Moomins and the Great Flood went largely unnoticed, her next book Comet in Moominland was a huge success and soon she was signed up to work on a comic strip that was syndicated around the world.
Meanwhile, in her personal life, after a brief, intense affair with another woman, she met Tuulikka Pietila, with whom she would live for three decades.
She was in her fifties when she started writing for adults. But it was worth the wait. "She manages to have a philosophical depth to her writing and give a psychological truth but in an apparently very simple way," argues Jansz. "It's uncluttered and she gets to something very deep."
The Summer Book has sold a staggering 100,000 copies. The recent reprint of The Moomins and the Great Flood quickly sold out its original print run of 10,000. Something about Jansson's work for both children and adults still resonates clearly.
Jansz thinks it's the values implicit in Jansson's writing and cartoons. "These creatures have values that seem timeless – valuing nature, valuing co-operation, sharing and also tolerance. I think it fits in with the protest values of the Occupy movement. We're looking to dig in and get value from things that are enduring and matter. I do think it touches something we're hungry for."
The year 2014 sees the centenary of Jansson's birth and between then and now a series of reprints of her work is planned. And her influence is feeding down through the generations to newly emerging cartoonists. Luke Pearson, author of Hilda and the Midnight Giant and Hilda and the Bird Paradise, is happy to own up to Jansson's impact on his work.
"The way she mastered prose, illustration and that curious combination of the two, is extremely inspirational to me and is something I definitely aspire towards. Starting out, I wanted to try and capture that atmosphere that had haunted me for so long and channel it into something of my own. With the newest book, the world and art style has developed into something more my own, but Jansson's influence can be seen in every aspect of the first book."
Jansson's world is not receding into the past. It's being reborn, reimagined. And it's being revisited by old fans and new. Her moment may have a while to run yet.
Moominland Tales is on BBC4 on Boxing Day at 9pm. The Moomins and The Great Flood is published by Sort Of Books, priced £9.99. Luke Pearson's Hilda and the Bird Parade is published by No Brow, priced £11.95.