What I liked best," wrote Tove Jansson, the creator of the Moomins, "was being beastly to Hitler and Stalin." Jansson's lovable, chubby, hippo-like Moomins are now a brand rivalling Winnie the Pooh and Hobbit heroes in terms of world-wide money-spinning. But unlike Pooh and the Hobbits, the Moomins started life as anti-fascist political beings who had the courage to yelp when Hitler was annexing bits of Europe. In 1938, the year of the Munich conference, 24-year-old Jansson was working as a cartoonist for Garm, a Finnish satirical magazine. Her cover for October that year shows Hitler as a spoiled child, bawling for more cake while ignoring the slices of Europe he has already snatched and devoured, from the Polish corridor to Alsace-Lorraine to Yugoslavia. Jansson signed her cartoons with the little Moomin creature and it was a signature with an active part to play, its expression and body language underlining whatever satirical point she was making. "His eyes were set close together," she said, "and were angry."
Later she said it was the utterly hellish war years that made her write the fairytales in which angry-eyed Moomin-on-a-mission morphed into wide-eyed observer of family life. There was plenty to observe. Tove Jansson had been born in 1914 to a pair of determinedly bohemian artists. Pappa Jansson was a chauvinist pig of great charm, a sculptor who hewed grandiloquent civic monuments. Many were needed in the wake of the first world war, but payment for them tended to be erratic. He was The Artist, the paterfamilias, the one to be indulged. Male rituals were sacred but unaffordable and so they were paid for by the work of his wife, Ham, also an artist. Before her marriage, Ham had been a notable Swedish suffragette and she'd helped start up the Swedish Girl Guide movement. She was adversarial, rebellious and practical. Only practicality survived marriage. Someone, after all, had to put bread on the table. Ham took a job with the Swedish Post Office designing stamps and this made her merely a jobbing artist in the eyes of the hewer of stone monuments.
From the day his daughter was born, Pappa referred to Tove as an Artist, with a capital "A". Fortunately, she had the talent to support that expectation. She studied art in Sweden, Finland, Paris and Italy. Throughout these years, she was heavily burdened by guilt that, given her talent, she should be taking some of the breadwinning pressure off her mother.
The first Moomin book was published in 1945. The Moomins and the Great Flood is the creation myth. It doesn't take a genius to trace Mamma and Pappa Jansson in Moominmamma and Moominpappa: he's mooning about on the primeval beach when Moominmamma makes her magnificent entrance surfing in on a giant diluvian wave like Aphrodite with a handbag. From that Thatcherish accessory, over the next 30 years of adventures, Moominmamma fishes everything needed to fix any problem. Early Moomin books were not conspicuously successful, but the little creatures had taken possession of Jansson and continued to appear in her political cartoons in a magazine run by her lover, a philosopher called Atos Wirtanen. Moominpappa has two defining characteristics: he wears a top hat and he can be relied on to be missing when life gets tough.
When Jansson proposed marriage, Wirtanen gave the dismissive reply that he thought they'd been married already. This new dimension of male insensitivity moved her to embrace what she called the "spook side": lesbianism. She found her long-term partner in Tooti, an illustrator like her mother – who entered the Moomin books as Too-Tikki, a wild-haired artistic troll in a Breton sweater and a beret.
To be a success, a children's book series needs to create an entire world, and by 1949 the Moomins had been joined by a menagerie of snuffly creatures: Sniff, Snufkin, Little My, the Snork Maiden, Hattifatteners, Fillyjonk and so on. The books were hugely popular in Finland and Sweden. That the Moomintroll plays enjoyed success was remarkable considering how difficult it was for the actors to talk through their Moominsnouts – and singers valiantly tackled the same problem on performing the first Moomin opera. Swedish universities offered Moomin studies. Moomin philosophy was declared Dionysian rather than Apollonian. A scholarly backlash during the 1960s and 70s condemned the Moomins' superficially gendered way of life: Moominmamma's apron, handbag and the illusory security she offered were particularly frowned on. Considering Jansson's feminist agenda, this was ironic. Fortunately, the little creatures were soon forgiven and literary prizes started to rain down on Jansson's head.
It took a British newspaperman to bring the Moomins to the wider world. In 1952, Charles Sutton, syndication manager for Associated Newspapers, commissioned the comic strip that ran for seven years in the London Evening News, then the world's biggest daily paper with a circulation of 12m. Moomin fever spread. Strips ran in 12 countries and hundreds of different newspapers. There followed radio programmes, television, theatre and film. Japan put its Moomin boom down to the stories offering a response to the break up of family life and a counterblast to the stream of worthy children's literature. Germany made the Moomins God-fearing and introduced evening prayers before hibernation.
Walt Disney wanted to buy up the brand, and was rejected. Jansson and her brother set up Moomin Characters, which is still one of Finland's most profitable companies. It was responsible for syndications, merchandising, soaps, porcelain dolls, marzipan figures, nursery furnishings, mugs; 100 episodes of a TV series sold to 100 countries: "It's going so well, I can't help getting rich even if they keep cheating me," wrote Jansson. By the end of the seven-year contract, she had drawn more than 10,000 comic strip frames and had got her brother to take over.
But dissatisfaction was gnawing at her; for the next couple of years, she saw a "head doctor" for therapy. She wrote novels: some bad, some good. There is the enchanting Summer Book that Scandinavian lovers give each other at the same sort of emotional moments as their southerly counterparts give each other Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet. There was also Sun City, her satire on the funeral home industry, written 10 years after Jessica Mitford had done it better in The American Way of Death. Plainly, Jansson was lost.
She lived until 2001, but could never divorce herself from the Moomins. "You feel a cold wind on your legs when you step outside Moomin Valley," she said. Repeatedly asked to explain her success, her best answer suggested it was down to "daydreams, monsters and all the horrible symbols of the subconscious that stimulate me … I wonder if the nursery and the chamber of horrors are as far apart as people think?"
Boel Westin, professor of literature at the University of Stockholm, has written an affectionate biography. She wrote her doctoral thesis on the Moomin world and knew Jansson. In the book, Westin compares her to Shakespeare, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, even "Chekov spiced with Poe". Actually, Jansson needs no such comparisons: that she wrote well is self-evident from the enduring popularity of her surreal and prankish tales.
• Sue Prideaux's Strindberg: A Life is published by Yale.