Header overlay

Brief Encounters

Share this

‘My dear sir,’ said Mr James, ‘how extremely percipient of you to have identified my person as the author of the ‒ may I say instinct? ‒ volume you eagerly offer, and how pleased I should be to accede to your request were it not that, regrettably, upon leaving Casa Alvisi – that most delightfully hospitable, surely, of all Venetian palazzi? ‒ had I not, as I say, departed this morning without placing in my breast pocket the necessary instrument with which it would in other circumstances have been my pleasure to accede to your so flattering invitation to inscribe, or shall we say to dedicate . . .’

‘He means’, interrupted the lady at his side, ‘that he’s forgotten his pen.’

Spencer Somers’s copy of Daisy Miller was never, alas, inscribed or dedicated, for Edith Wharton didn’t have a pen either, and the waiter at Caffè Florian, when summoned, simply had a blunt pencil with which he wrote out a bill for tea and pandolce; and eager collector of autographed books though Spencer Somers was, he couldn’t bring himself to borrow a waiter’s pencil to offer to Henry James.

That encounter took place in 1887, when James and his friend Edith Wharton were staying in Venice with the New York hostess Katherine Bronson (who was later given a bit part in The Aspern Papers) and the anecdote comes from Somers’s single book, Tea at Florian’s, which was published in 1920. An account of a life deeply devoted to celebrity-chasing, it is both comic and rather pathetic, because though he describes his victims with enthusiasm and a considerable talent for characterization, his encounters with them were almost always unsatisfactory.

The Florian’s of the title is of course the celebrated café in the Piazza San Marco in Venice, where Somers lay in wait for his victims on the (perfectly accurate) theory that sooner or later anyone who was anyone would at some time sit down in the Sala Greca or the Sala Orientale or at one of the outside tables for afternoon tea. He became well known to the waiters there: if he seemed to have nothing better to do in the afternoons than sit over a cup of Darjeeling or Gunpowder Supreme, it was because he didn’t have anything better to do.

Somers was born in Tunbridge Wells in 1850, the son of Admiral the Honourable Aubrey Somers, KCMG. The Admiral was a singular figure in the Navy of his time. Like so many seamen, he was a prolific knitter and, as Somers records,

created something of a legend by sitting knitting Balaclavas with his First Lieutenant on the bridge of his warship HMS Respite during a skirmish arising in 1855 from the Anglo-French siege of Petropavlosk-Kamchatsky, and being heard at one point to cry: ‘No, purl two, knit three Hardy, you bloody fool. Now, hard a-port and fire at w

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

‘My dear sir,’ said Mr James, ‘how extremely percipient of you to have identified my person as the author of the ‒ may I say instinct? ‒ volume you eagerly offer, and how pleased I should be to accede to your request were it not that, regrettably, upon leaving Casa Alvisi – that most delightfully hospitable, surely, of all Venetian palazzi? ‒ had I not, as I say, departed this morning without placing in my breast pocket the necessary instrument with which it would in other circumstances have been my pleasure to accede to your so flattering invitation to inscribe, or shall we say to dedicate . . .’

‘He means’, interrupted the lady at his side, ‘that he’s forgotten his pen.’

Spencer Somers’s copy of Daisy Miller was never, alas, inscribed or dedicated, for Edith Wharton didn’t have a pen either, and the waiter at Caffè Florian, when summoned, simply had a blunt pencil with which he wrote out a bill for tea and pandolce; and eager collector of autographed books though Spencer Somers was, he couldn’t bring himself to borrow a waiter’s pencil to offer to Henry James. That encounter took place in 1887, when James and his friend Edith Wharton were staying in Venice with the New York hostess Katherine Bronson (who was later given a bit part in The Aspern Papers) and the anecdote comes from Somers’s single book, Tea at Florian’s, which was published in 1920. An account of a life deeply devoted to celebrity-chasing, it is both comic and rather pathetic, because though he describes his victims with enthusiasm and a considerable talent for characterization, his encounters with them were almost always unsatisfactory. The Florian’s of the title is of course the celebrated café in the Piazza San Marco in Venice, where Somers lay in wait for his victims on the (perfectly accurate) theory that sooner or later anyone who was anyone would at some time sit down in the Sala Greca or the Sala Orientale or at one of the outside tables for afternoon tea. He became well known to the waiters there: if he seemed to have nothing better to do in the afternoons than sit over a cup of Darjeeling or Gunpowder Supreme, it was because he didn’t have anything better to do. Somers was born in Tunbridge Wells in 1850, the son of Admiral the Honourable Aubrey Somers, KCMG. The Admiral was a singular figure in the Navy of his time. Like so many seamen, he was a prolific knitter and, as Somers records,

created something of a legend by sitting knitting Balaclavas with his First Lieutenant on the bridge of his warship HMS Respite during a skirmish arising in 1855 from the Anglo-French siege of Petropavlosk-Kamchatsky, and being heard at one point to cry: ‘No, purl two, knit three Hardy, you bloody fool. Now, hard a-port and fire at will.’

Spencer, the Admiral’s only son, was educated at home by a series of governesses (he went to Uppingham, but only for one week), and at the age of 19 inherited a large family fortune from his aunt, Lady Felicia Somers, the familiar advocate of comprehensive abstinence, and so was able to devote his life to his two passions: Venice, and collecting signed or inscribed copies of books by authors visiting that city. He became a familiar figure among the English residents: un- usually tall (he was well over six feet), he was extremely thin and almost invariably wore black, so that on dark nights passers-by not infrequently knocked him into the canal near his apartment at 30 via Marcantonio Bragadin (once occupied by Lord Byron). Fortunately his height was such that he was able to walk to the nearest steps with his head above water, and at worst only suffered the latest of a series of severe colds. He became an almost lethal collector of signed editions, but encounters with their authors were rarely smooth (he was once knocked down by Baron Corvo after unwisely asking him whether he was ‘anyone in particular’). In 1881 he was delighted to see two of the most celebrated contemporary poets sitting together at Florian’s. Browning and Tennyson were playing cribbage: on losing a point one had accurately to quote a line from the works of the other. Tennyson (wrote Somers)

was winning easily, quoting to Browning lines purporting to come from the latter’s poem Sordello. Since he had largely forgotten this early and extravagantly obscure poem, Browning was unable to contest Tennyson’s quotations, and as I approached finally lost his temper, and knocking over his glass of Burton’s Pale Ale (especially imported for him by Florian’s) he stumped off across the piazza, scowling. This put Tennyson in an excellent humour, and when I got home I found he had not merely signed his name to my copy of his complete poems, but had added the legend: ‘Who’s Browning, anyway? – A.T.’

Tea at Florian’s is full of such unexpected glimpses of the authors of Somers’s time. One of the most interesting encounters occurred in 1900 when, recognizing Marcel Proust taking tea with his friend the composer Reynaldo Hahn, he rushed back to his apartment to fetch his copy of Les Plaisirs et les jours:

Proust and his friend were beautifully dressed in matching suits of grey silk with identical cravats of heliotrope and with twin mauve mouchoirs tucked into their breast pockets. They were in deep conversation, so I stood silently beside them for some time before, lightly touching Proust on the shoulder, I remarked: ‘Bonjour, M. Proust – Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?’ He immediately leapt to his feet with a cry of ‘Foutre le camp!’ (a remark I later found to have an obscene connotation). I retired. Later that week I read in La Nuova Venezia that Proust had been arrested for brawling in the street with two gondoliers and a poliziotto; the great author was subsequently known in Venice as Pugile or ‘Bruiser’ Proust.

Somers’s private library was, sadly, dispersed after his death, and such treasures as his copy of Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul, signed by its author, Marie Corelli, and the autograph of ‘Gunga Din’ written out on the back of a Florian menu by Rudyard Kipling, have vanished. Tea at Florian’s does however contain several portraits he took with his 1888 Eastman Kodak camera, including a rare photograph of W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan in gondoliers’ costume, arm-in-arm with Mrs Corelli and Giovanni, the gondolier she later took to Stratford to row the gondola she kept on the Avon. They appear to be singing. The illustrations also reveal a few figures clearly unrecognized by Somers: one, for instance, of the façade of San Zaccaria, shows a somewhat large and ungainly man dressed in what appear to be velvet knickerbockers with, on his arm, a younger man in white duck trousers and a shirt open to the navel. They are clearly Oscar Wilde and ‘Bosie’ Douglas, on holiday in February 1895 after the success of The Importance of Being Earnest. Another shows the Piazza and Florian’s under the acqua alta or flood of 1908. In his text, Somers tells us that on the day before the flood, when it was anticipated but not positively forecast, he had called at the Calle Sangallo, on a corner overlooking the Grand Canal, to meet a writer who had recently had a success with his third novel, A Room with a View:

Mr Edward Forster’s novel Where Angels Fear to Tread had a great effect upon me, showing him to be, as I was, a lover of Italy; and hearing that he was in Venice I went immediately to the Librario Marco Polo and purchased his latest book, A Room with a View. Sure enough, on the following morning he was seated at Florian’s, well away from the rain, with a companion dressed in the uniform of the British police force. He seemed moderately pleased to accede to my request for his autograph, and more reluctantly to sit for his photograph. However, a friend who was accompanying him struck in with ‘Eddie, you can’t be photographed in that old jacket. What would your mother say?’ This rather authoritarian rebuke resulted in Mr Forster agreeing to return to Florian’s on the following afternoon at the same hour, when I might take his picture.

Alas, during the night the water rose, flooding the piazza and surrounding streets, and parts of Chioggia. I stood on a piece of high pavement opposite Florian’s. The boards were of course up, and the caffè closed. I took a photograph of the scene. Only, some days later, when the photographic firm delivered the prints of my pictures, did I see, outside the caffè, the melancholy figure of Edward Morgan Forster, dressed in impeccable tweeds, the water just above his knees. I have always viewed this as a tribute not only to the courteous nature of the author, but the very nature of the English Gentleman.
Somers died in his Venice rooms in the autumn of 1920. He was found sitting at his desk, a pen in his hand, and at his side a small pile of the recently published Tea at Florian’s, which he was about to inscribe. Somehow, it seems an apt way for him to have gone.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 56 © Horace Annesley 2017


About the contributor

Horace Annesley used to work for the North Eastern Gas Board. His hobbies are writing and collecting autographs of important contemporary figures, of which he has a large number.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.