June 15, 1998 12:00 PM

When Merlin Holland was a boy, his mother suggested that if anyone asked if he were Oscar Wilde’s grandson he should “just say yes and talk about something else.” Even if Holland was curious about his grandfather, he learned early on not to discuss him. Wilde had been ruined challenging Victorian England’s sexual mores by flaunting his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, an aristocrat 16 years his junior. After three trials, Wilde served two years’ hard labor for “gross indecency.” Decades later, after his father’s death, family friends discouraged Holland from a career in the arts. “I think everyone was desperately worried that all the old genes were going to come out,” says Holland, 52, the son of Vyvyan, one of Wilde’s two sons by his wife, Constance Lloyd, “and I was going to do something completely off the rails.”

What a difference a century makes Having died virtually penniless at 46, despite having written such classics as The Importance of Being Earnest, the author is suddenly the rage. Liam Neeson stars as Wilde in the current Broadway play The Judas Kiss. A second play, Gross Indecency, is succeeding Off Broadway, and British actor Stephen Fry is starring in a new film entitled Wilde. And Holland, as Wilde’s only grandson, has achieved minor celebrity by becoming an authority on his once-demonized grandfather. He has produced one book, the recently published The Wilde Album, and is at work on two more—one on Wilde’s influence, the other a new edition of his grandfather’s letters. Close friend Jeremy Mason feels Holland is the ideal caretaker of the Wilde legacy. “After all,” he says, “he’s the closest link we could possibly have.”

Holland’s knowledge of his subject didn’t come easy. Though his father had written a book, Son of Oscar Wilde, he rarely mentioned the parent he had last seen when he was 8. Holland had to turn to biographies and Wilde’s letters. Still, it has been a labor of love. “It’s exciting doing the detective work,” says Holland. The letters are a sort of bridge to the past, he says, “where before it was just a chasm you couldn’t cross.”

Raised an only child in the south of England, Holland was 10 when his father, dependent at the time on royalties from Wilde’s work that dried up, was forced into bankruptcy. “Newspapers had placards saying, ‘Oscar Wilde’s son goes bankrupt,’ ” says Holland. A family friend assumed the costs of Holland’s education, allowing him to go to Eton. He attended Oxford like his grandfather, but studied modern languages. “People would know who I was without me saying who I was,” Holland says. “And they’d expect me to open my mouth and produce epigrams the way my grandfather had. It’s the burden of expectation.”

Upon graduation, Holland was steered by family friends toward business. For five years he sold paper. He then moved into academic publishing, a field closer to his interest. In his late 20s, Holland began to help his mother by managing requests from historians for use of Wilde’s letters. It was then that he developed an interest in researching his grandfather. A few years later he met Sarah Parker, then a furniture importer, at a friend’s party, and they wed in 1977.

The couple, who live in a Victorian row house in the Wandsworth section of London, was drawn together by many shared passions, including a love of fine wines. “Once a year we get up at 4 in the morning, drive to France and pick our own grapes,” says Holland, who ages barrels of pinot noir in the basement. Another passion is their only son, Lucian, 18, now studying classics, like his great-grandfather, at Oxford. Having had his own early creative urges dampened, Holland says he has learned the art of parental non-interference. Besides, he says, as heir to an eminent wit, “you can’t, and shouldn’t, fight genes.”

Christina Cheakalos

Nina Biddle in London

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