He’s a duke, he’s a rake, he’s a Sebastian. Welcome to the world of Regency romance.
At Goodreads.com you can find an entire list of Regency Romances with Heroes Named Sebastian: “For all those Regency romances with heroes named Sebastian, because god almighty aren’t there a lot??” But even that compilation with its dozen titles just scratches the surface. It misses books like:
- The Bride Price featuring Sebastian Deville, the debauched, dangerously handsome illegitimate son of the Duke of Grandien
- A Promise of More featuring Sebastian Hawkstone, Lord Coldhurst, the notorious rogue who killed the heroine’s brother in a duel
- The Earl and the Enchantress featuring Sebastian Lancaster, Earl of Roddam, who harbors a family secret so dark he has forsaken marriage
- His Bride for the Taking featuring Sebastian, Lord Byrne, who has never been one for rules
Then there are the heroes of Sins of a Duke, Sebastian’s Lady Spy, Marriage Most Scandalous, The Seduction of Sebastian St. James, Surrendering to the Rake, Lord Sebastian’s Secret, If the Duke Demands, and more, and more.
You’ll find Sebastians who are dukes and viscounts, illegitimate and heirs, military officers and dissolute rakes, straight and gay (like the Sebastian of The Duke in Denial). I started out to tally all of them but gave up in defeat. The list was endless.
And yet, the list is also artificially short. Consider that successful romance authors tend to be highly prolific, and they are only allotted one Sebastian a piece. Writers like Lisa Kleypas of Devil in Winter (“Sebastian, Viscount St. Vincent, whose reputation is so dangerous that thirty seconds alone with him will ruin any maiden’s good name”) and Loretta Chase of Lord of Scoundrels (“Sebastian Ballister, the notorious Marquess of Dain, who is determined to continue doing what he does best—sin”) have written dozens of historical romances. Their need to keep heroes separate in fans’ minds is all that’s saving the genre from a truly absurd Sebastian glut.
The only place you won’t find an abundance of Regency heroes named Sebastian is in novels actually written in England in the first half of the 19th Century. Not a single Sebastian appears in any work of Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters. Georgette Heyer, the 20th-century mother of the Regency genre who was renowned for her meticulous research, didn’t name any hero Sebastian either. Because Sebastian simply wasn’t a common name name of the period.
The 1841 England Census lists an all-ages total of just 65 Sebastians. To put that tiny number in perspective, that’s roughly one man or boy named Sebastian for every:
2 named Jeremy
15 named Theophilus
50 named Herbert
100 named Moses
500 named Stephen
3,000 named Charles
7,000 named George
14,000 named William
18,000 named John
Even among the aristocracy, the story was much the same. A review of the top British officers in the Napoleonic Wars reveals a Sebastian-free lineup of fairly ordinary names. Almost a third were named William or John.
How, then, did Sebastian become the name that modern writers (and readers) picture as the classic Regency beau? I think the answer lies partially in what Sebastian is, and partially in what it is not.
Sebastian is immediately recognizable as an old and traditional name. But it has not traditionally been popular, which keeps it from sounding too ordinary. Its roots are Latin rather than Anglo-Saxon, which to the modern English ear comes across as more sophisticated. (Compare to an Anglo-Saxon name like Cuthbert, which was 15 times as popular as Sebastian in Regency England but is invisible in the romance genre.)
Sebastian is long and multisyllabic. Its lyrical rhythm is unusual for English male names, though common among Italian names, including the romantic choices favored by Shakespeare. In English the effect is elegant, suggesting a stately and unhurried lifestyle.
Finally, Sebastian is not notably English. It has been used across much of Europe and is not linked to any single language or culture. That might seem an unlikely recommendation for a name to conjure up Regency England. But consider that the one Sebastian I did find in an actual romantic British novel from around the Regency period isn’t British. Anna Maria Porter’s Don Sebastian, published in 1809, is a historical tale about a 16th-century King of Portugal. Even back then, it seems, Sebastian was already cast as a name for exotic foreign nobility of centuries past. And foreign is the byword. Unlike Jane Austen, the Brontës and Georgette Heyer, not one of the authors behind the Regency Sebastians I’ve collected here is English.
Historical romance authors have to create a plausible setting. Many take great care to master period detail. Yet in the end, their #1 requirement is to transport the reader into an atmosphere of romantic refinement, far from contemporary reality. When it comes to Regency fantasies, the historically unlikely Sebastian, ironically, is the ideal name for the job.