Brief Encounters

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‘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

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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.

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