According to Richard Ellman, whose 680-page extremely- detailed Oscar Wilde (1988) I've now read and enjoyed, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde came out of more colorful family situation than is generally known. Oscar's father, the famous eye surgeon Sir William Wilde, brought three children to his marriage with Jane Elgee -- apparently by three different mothers, none of whom he bothered to marry. The first child, a boy named Henry Wilson, was supported by his father and eventually became a partner in his medical practice. The girls, Emily and Mary, born two years apart, were adopted by Sir William's older brother "as his wards" and were also acknowledged to be part of Oscar's family. Emily and Mary were not so fortunate as their older half-brother. "In the course of showing off their ball dresses before a party, one went too close to an open fire, caught her crinoline in the flames, and was terribly burned. So was her sister, who tried frantically to rescue her. Their gravestone records that they both died on the same day, 10 November, 1871. Sir Williams's grief was intense, and his groans could be heard outside the house." The girls were twenty-four and twenty-two years old. Oscar, born in 1854. was just seventeen at their deaths. Although he wrote voluminously about his own life, Oscar nowhere records this horrific event. But was he affected? Certainly the knowledge that his father lived a second, darker life seems to have made a contribution to the plot of Dorian Gray -- a novel in which Dorian is in love with a woman of questionable birth. Matters of legitimacy are raised in two of Wilde's best known plays. Nevertheless, it seems extraordinary that the tragic deaths of two half-sisters should have left no mark either on Wilde's public or private personality. It might be argued that Wilde's lifelong aim was self-destruction and that his sister's deaths served as a template for his own tragedy -- but such an argument would be weak in evidentiary support. The sisters and the fire is a terrible tale that may signifiy nothing beyond its own horror.